Reading Austen to Handle Adversity


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

In recent posts I have been writing about how young people in the 18th century found moral guidance in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, even though the novel was attacked for corrupting them.  Over the next four posts I will tell an inspirational story about one of my students who found guidance in the novels of Jane Austen when she was growing up.  Mary (not her real name) explored the impact of Jane Austen on her life in a senior project she wrote under my supervision.

The story is inspirational because of Mary’s condition  She was born 16 weeks early and has problems walking and talking.  A frozen laranyx makes her voice gravelly and hoarse.  As a result, she was marginalized as a child and experienced great loneliness.  She was also diagnosed as learning disabled, and her mother had to fight the school system to make sure that Mary could attend class with the “normal” children.

 When Mary graduated as valedictorian of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I remarked to her mother that she must be remembering that fight and feeling utterly vindicated.  She acknowledged she was thinking exactly that.

Mary discovered books at a very early age and realized what a comfort they could be.  Although they could not altogether make up for her isolation, they helped.  In high school she fell in love with Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice taught her that she didn’t have to hide out in sarcastic judgment of others, a defensive tactic she had developed to protect her feelings and bolster her self-esteem.  In Elizabeth Bennet she found a model of gentle irony.  As she writes, Elizabeth’s

“sarcastic statements carried a sense of vulnerability; they stemmed from a heart filled with loyalty and love.  I saw a glimmer of myself in Elizabeth, and I realized that I could represent my point of view without dismissing the opinions of others.  I also saw that Elizabeth had to be embarrassed in order to recognize that her behavior needed to changed.  As I looked over my past relationships, I discovered that my insecurity, which had caused many awkward and tense moments, was self-created.  When I finished the novel, I realized that I had fallen in love with the words and the world of Jane Austen.  I also made a pledge to increase my self-awareness and to take responsibility for my role in the state of my social life.  I am happy to say that I formed a lasting friendship with a classmate soon after reading Pride and Prejudice.

In short, Pride and Prejudice got Mary to reevaluate the direction of her life, both with regard to others and with regard to “the internal relationship between my head and my soul.”

Mary went on to read all of Jane Austen’s novels, and she eagerly seized the opportunity of the yearlong St. Mary’s Project to write about them.  At first, her project was to study images of readers reading in Austen’s works.  Four of the six major novels make mention of books. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is a fan of Anne Radcliffe’s gothic novels (as was Austen): Catherine is reading Mysteries of Udolpho and anticipating The Italian.  Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility loves the poetry of William Cowper (again like Austen).  Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is an avid reader but has mixed feelings (mostly negative) about a home production of the German play Lovers’ Vows.  Anne Elliott in Persuasion has long conversations with a sentimental naval officer about the works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.   

I don’t recall Elizabeth Bennett or Emma ever reading, perhaps because they are the most social of the six heroines.  Reading in Austen often points to withdrawal.

The project seemed to make sense for Mary since she loves Austen and loves reading.  As occurs with all good projects, however, things started to get complicated.  Mary began discovering that she had ambivalent feelings about books.  She had used them as refuge from unkindness but realized that they could also become a crutch.  In a sense, she had to go beyond books to engage with the world.

This was a critical issue since Mary was in her senior year and facing graduation.  She had found a home at St. Mary’s, where she was appreciated by her teachers and loved by her classmates.  The prospect of leaving the comforting confines of academe and entering the workforce is daunting for even the most confident students.  For someone who had experienced many rejections and who found social adjustment difficult, it was terrifying.

All her conflicted feelings arose in our sessions, and it took us a long time to figure out what was happening.  Mary was researching and writing continuously, but I couldn’t figure out her center of gravity.  Her project didn’t seem to have a point.

Finally we had a difficult session—in January I think—where I told her that she couldn’t leave until we had hammered out a clear thesis.  Since Mary sometimes talked on and on, I told her I would interrupt her every time I found her straying. 

At times our discussion was painful, but what finally emerged was this: books, as wonderful as they are, are not life, and Mary needed to look at the limitations of reading in Jane Austen’s novels as well as its virtues.  Furthermore, she needed to look at the limitations of the mentor figures who guide the heroines in their readings.  Mary was about to go out on her own, which meant breaking from her mother as well as from the world of books.  The senior project provided her a chance to sort out issues she was avoiding but knew she had to face.

Writing on this topic, in other words, required introspection and it required courage. Tomorrow I’ll share the insights Mary gained from Northanger Abbey.  Next week I’ll report on her conversations with Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

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  1. Barbara
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Elizabeth reads (or at least picks up a book) when she visits the sick Jane at Netherfield Hall. Since she is amongst the Bingleys, Hursts and, of course, Mr. Darcy, she gets to observe everyone while avoiding playing cards for stakes she suspects will be too high for her.

    The tension between books as both support and crutch is interesting. Books helped me survive an otherwise unhappy childhood and gave my mother and me refuge in a family awash in raging extroverts. Could I have survived without book? Probably. But I’ve also survived New England winters without central heat, not an experience I’d care to repeat.

    To come back to an earlier theme of yours, Robin; because books can offer us different options for “being in the world” as Elizabeth Bennett’s “liveliness of mind” did for Mary, good literature both draws us in and sends us back out to the world with new ideas for making our way in it. We may linger a while and return repeatedly to books we love, but it’s their connections to the world that fuels their fascination and, ultimately, sends us back to deal with our own lives “with a little help from our (literary) friends”.

  2. Posted November 5, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    What an eloquent statement, Barbara! Yes, I remember the scene in Pride and Prejudice now. I don’t recall Elizabeth reading it, but we know that she’s chosen it for serious purpose–unlike Caroline Bingley, who has other motives for picking up the second volume of the book that Darcy is reading.

    Yes, literature puts us in a profound conversation with the world and helps us work our way through it. After all, we bring our world with us into our reading, which becomes a means of reflecting upon it. So even though there have always been authors warning about being swallowed up by the world of books–Don Quixote is the most famous example–the fact is that the separation between world and reading is fairly porous.

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  1. By Moving Beyond Adolescent Fantasies on September 15, 2010 at 1:04 am

    […] Northanger Abbey, how they are both useful but ultimately limiting.  You can read the whole story here, here, and […]


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