Ever since my sophomore year of high school when I first cracked open “Pride and Prejudice,” I’ve been spellbound by Jane Austen. As a girl, I know it’s cliché to love her, but how can you not when she, selflessly, pours portions of herself into each paragraph?
My heart shattered into a million pieces when I watched the biographical film, “Becoming Jane,” causing me to want to read every work she’d ever penned. Now, I’m not quite there. I’ve yet to read “Emma” and “Northanger Abbey,” but I think I can still speak somewhat authoritatively on the subject.
Although I can’t deny my first love, “Pride and Prejudice,” I feel myself particularly drawn to “Persuasion.” Something about Austen’s tone and the maturity with which her characters carry themselves is absolutely hypnotic. It was the last novel Austen wrote, for one, so she had evolved as a writer from when she first sent “First Impressions,” later “Pride and Prejudice,” off for publishing. It’s here that you see the wisdom of 40-year-old Austen scribbled on every page.
You see some of this evolution of Austen’s character in “Becoming Jane.” People love to hate on this movie—based on Austen’s life—because of its tragic ending, but that’s precisely why I love it. In a way, I feel as if Austen sacrificed her own happiness for us, her readers. Her heart broke and despite this—perhaps because of this—she gave us six of the most beautiful novels in the English language.
There’s a line at the end of the movie that gets me every time. Austen has already parted ways with the love of her life, Tom Lefroy, and she is clearly heartbroken. In this particular scene, she says, in respect to her writing, “My characters shall have, after a little bit of trouble, all that they desire.” It’s as if she channels all of her hopes and dreams into her characters, and we are the ones to reap the rewards.
Author Mrs. R.C. Waterson said this about Austen in 1863:
"Infinite sameness, infinite variety, are not more apparent in the outward than in the inward world, and the work of that writer will alone be lasting who recognizes and embodies this eternal law of the great Author. Jane Austen possessed in a remarkable degree this rare intuition. The following passage is found in Sir Walter Scott's journal, under date of the fourteenth of March, 1826: 'Read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of "Pride and Prejudice." That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.'" (Source: The Atlantic)
Austen had a way of relating to her characters that can only be described as empathy. I recently perused a note written by Austen to her sister, Cassandra, about the newly-printed “Pride and Prejudice.” She said this about the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet: "I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know."
I see female authors as a voice for the voiceless, so to speak. I’m not really a feminist, and I don’t claim that we are the persecuted gender, but I think women still have a certain tenderness toward suffering. Women are typically feelers, not systematic thinkers, and they are usually better at empathizing than men.
I see this arise, certainly in Austen’s novels and the underdog mentality which so many of her characters have, but in Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre,” “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott and unquestionably “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
I’ve long wondered who Harper Lee is, really. So I did some research. What I discovered was that “To Kill a Mockingbird” closely resembled her actual childhood. Rupert Cornwell said in his May 20, 2010 article on Lee in The Independent:
“The book is also probably the best way to discover who exactly is Harper Lee. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ thinly disguised autobiographical elements abound. For Monroeville, read the fictional Maycomb. For the author, read the young narrator, Scout, a tomboy just like Lee was as a girl. Elements of Scout's father, the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch...are surely modeled on her own father, A C Lee.”
Not long after “Mockingbird” came out, Lee is reported to have jokingly said, “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” I think that Lee succeeded. She followed in Austen’s experienced footsteps, pouring her own life onto parchment—not that Lee was unable to think of another topic, but that she saw the necessity to tell a particular story. And that story happened to include personal experience.
Maybe we should follow suit.