One cannot utter the name of Jane Austen without invoking a torrent of emotions. Some read her with admiration, some with disdain, some think she’s a feminist, some believe she’s the epitome of what feminism sought to fight. Others read her for a sociological understanding of the Regency era. And then there are readers like me, who read her for the aesthetics.
Reading Austen is like embarking on a long vacation, riding in a horse coach and halting at an inn for the night before you commence your journey the next day. People like me consider her literature as escapist – we love the escape she provides from the eternal ennui of our lives.
I can’t read her without sipping on a scalding cup of tea with the characters, until the lines blur and I forget if they are my guests or I theirs.
Austen’s world beckons you to step in. Even the cramped and dilapidated cottage in Sense and Sensibility, where the banished Dashwoods live, invites the reader in. The honeysuckle framed cottage with its crackling fire warms you on a cold rainy day. The tiny hillocks all around engulfed me completely, and I soon saw myself walking beside Marianne, watching her slip on a steep slope and swoon over the dashing young man that Willoughby is.
Willoughby, a replica of Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, took me down memory lane and I found myself strolling through Longbourn till I stumbled upon the Bennett sisters. Their affection provided the kind of familiarity one craves when they leave home for the first time. So I tagged along with them to the market, looked through fabrics and ribbons for the upcoming ball. I put myself in elegant puff-sleeved gowns and plumes, descended from a carriage, chaperoned by Mr Darcy himself. Austen’s ballrooms, teeming with life, would implore me to shake a leg but my inability to dance posed a hindrance. So I dragged my two left feet to the corner and observed others sip their drinks and have the time of their lives while planning my departure from Longbourn to Bath.
There, I befriended Catherine Morland – who had come to Bath to make herself a lady. During a dance, I spotted Mr Tilney from Northanger Abbey make his way to Catherine and I wondered when I’d have a Mr Tilney walk up to me in a ballroom and entice me with his elaborate knowledge of muslins. I followed Miss Morland to Northanger and let my imagination run wild with her. The creaking doors and windows, the eerie silence in the deserted library – it all painted a gothic picture. The shadows spilled on to the pages from every nook and cranny of the Abbey and I wanted to get out and be rid of the horrors of the place when the mystery was finally solved.
Once back on the streets of Bath, I noticed the heroine of Persuasion – Anne Eliott – and wondered why it was such a popular holiday destination for Austen. I realised Anne was there on a more permanent basis so I extended my stay. At breakfast, I saw she quit her buttered toast and twisted with agitation at the prospect of seeing her old flame Captain Wentworth. From then on, dining in the same circle was unavoidable for the pair of them. Every dinner, they’d reluctantly share company and the food would be consumed mechanically. The air would be so awkward that even I’d lose my appetite for the scrumptious delicacies of roasts and cutlets laid on the table until the discomfort brought the lovers closer and it translated into a wedding.
One wedding brings on another and I accepted Emma’s invitation to Highbury to attend her governess’ wedding. The feast was discussed all over the neighbourhood and not a slice of the wedding cake remained. Here, one could discard awkwardness and eat to their heart’s fill. I sat at a dinner party thrown by Mr Woodhouse and saw him help everyone to the custard and tarts and refill his guests’ glasses with wine. Highbury get-togethers were so frequent that we dare not refuse Mr Knightley’s proposal of a picnic. His sandwiches and strawberries seemed stale after Emma’s snide comment about Miss Bates.
Emma, at that instant, could have easily replaced Fanny Price’s cruel cousins Maria or Julia from Mansfield Park. Fanny was the ideal example of what a Regency woman ought to be like – demure and devoid of a voice. But to a 21st century reader like me, it didn’t translate that way. While I was in no way supportive of the Bertrams or Crawfords, but when Sir Thomas declined permission to them to put on a play it did not just cast a damp on their celebration as I was disappointed too. Fanny, however, never wanted the play to be performed anyway – good for her – but I was denied elaborate descriptions of their costumes and props and a glimpse of what a family play would be like. And when I could not have it, I decided that Fanny’s moral compass was a trifle too rigid for me.
I prepared to quit Mansfield when I received a distressing letter from Lady Susan wishing to see her brother in Churchill. I decided to be her companion, till I realised she wasn’t the wronged victim I thought her to be. Described by a Mr De Courcy as “the most accomplished coquette in England”, she was the complete opposite of poor Fanny – a conniving flirt who had every man in the neighbourhood eating out of her palm. Different from Austen’s other heroines, she shattered all moral codes. I applauded every bit of her until the correspondence with her friend, which revealed her true colours.
And just like that, my sojourn with Austen came to an end, completely unanticipated and leaving me wanting more – just one more carriage ride, one more wedding, one more walk in the hills. But the long vacation had indeed seen its culmination and all I have now are memories etched in my heart to last a lifetime. And whenever I am in a need of a break from everyday drudgery, I’ll turn to these treasured souvenirs.
Sayani Rakshit is pursuing an MA in Mass Communication at Jamia Milia Islamia.
Featured image credit: StudioCanal/Working Title Films