In September 2008, I found myself in the town of Winchester in Hampshire for a work meeting at a magazine where I freelanced. Afterwards, I had time before my train so I went for a walk in what is a very ancient and pretty place — it was already old when it was King Alfred's capital of Wessex, circa 870 AD.
I went straight to Winchester Cathedral, a charming Norman-gothic building in a small quadrangle and ducked inside to pay my respects to the novelist Jane Austen.
Her flagstoned grave is about halfway up the north aisle as you face the nave. I was alone apart from two or three others; it was a quiet weekday, and I felt very lucky to not be overwhelmed by tourists and to be able to be alone with my thoughts about the great writer. Mostly, I was reminded that it had been a while since I'd picked up one of her books. I rectified that when I got back to Canada and have been rereading a couple a year ever since.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen's best-known work. In fact, it was on Monday, Jan. 28.
Austen's ongoing power and popularity stems in part from her ability to make observations about human relationships that are no less relevant today than they were in 1813. Her themes may have revolved around how women living in impoverished gentility could neither support themselves through work nor easily inherit under British law, but her universals can cover just about everyone.
That she is often seen as a "women's writer" is, to me, ridiculous. More men should read her. Her ideas were driven through her characters and their actions and are especially brilliant when describing human folly. The writing is itself proof.
A personal favourite quote says a lot about my unwillingness to engage in stupid arguments:
"Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition..." (Persuasion).
There's something for Valentine's Day:
"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more" (Emma).
Another quote I think we can all relate to on some days:
"Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings" (Mansfield Park).
There's one that easily pertains to people having drinks on a Whistler terrace in the summer:
"To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment" (also Mansfield Park).
And, finally, a tabloid journalist's creed:
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?" (Pride and Prejudice).
It is humbling as a writer to learn that Austen's six finished works were published between 1811 and 1818; two were posthumous, as she died in 1817, though, of course, she had been writing since childhood. By anyone's definition, that is a horrendously slender morsel of time in which to write so many consistently extraordinary pieces of literature.
And but for the interest of a publisher called Richard Bentley we might not have heard of her at all; Austen's novels were out of print for 12 years, from 1820 to 1832.
With the 200th anniversary, the Janeites (as the serious fans are called) will be out in force. There is Austen's simple ability to tell a story well. There is her relevance to women and their rights. There is Pride and Prejudice's combination of pure romance and clever observation in the story of an arrogant man forced to reflect on his life and behaviour because of love, and of a woman whose misunderstandings of another person could belong to anyone.
Pride and Prejudice is an industry on its own, with 50,000 copies selling in the U.K. every year. Sorry, I couldn't find the Canadian numbers. David Lassman of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath told the BBC that 60,000 people a year visit his museum.
There are the filmed versions, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in one, Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet in another, Donald Sutherland trying (badly) to pull off the English accent of Mr. Bennet.
And there is a more recent adaptation, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was bloody silly but also bloody fun.
On Monday's anniversary, there was a 12-hour Internet livestream reading of the book and hookups with various Jane Austen Societies around the world.
And in that spectacularly eccentric English way that we could do with more of in this country, the BBC is creating Pride and Prejudice: Having A Ball, at Easter.
The show is a 90-minute historical look at the Regency era through the re-enactment of one of the more famous chapters in the book, the Netherfield Ball. The experts will be out to talk about the food, the music, the customs, the dress, and, of course, the dancing.
That's all very nice and colourful, like all circuses, but my tip is to find a nice place and a stretch of time, take the book and read your heart out.
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