Jane Austen, Alice, and Me

What we can learn about ourselves and others from the books we re-read.

Jane Austen, Alice, and Me

A week before Christmas, my family held a memorial service for my beloved mother-in-law, Alice, who died at 93. I’ve been thinking a lot about Alice, as well as about her reading habits, because she always had one of Jane Austen’s novels on her bedside table.

In fact, Alice and I bonded over our love of Austen. In the early days of our relationship, I embroidered her favorite quote from Sense and Sensibility: “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” She had it framed and hung it on the wall of her study. That was Alice to a T! She had strong opinions about politics and women’s rights, but if she thought somebody didn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition, she graciously allowed their remarks to float away without comment.

My own introduction to Austen was at the age of 14, when I first read Pride and Prejudice. It’s hard now to picture a time when I didn’t know the Bennet sisters, or Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

My favorite Austen novel, though, is Emma, which I first read in college. I especially love its masterful opening sentence:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived almost twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Austen manages to give us all the charm and privilege of Emma’s character in one line. But the word “clever” suggests a possible pitfall, as does the word “seemed,” so that we can hardly wait to see what vexing experiences are about to unfold.

Austen stands up particularly well to re-reading, I think, and not just for her wit, her economy of language, and her wonderful observation of human nature. It’s also her unforgettable characters. But not all authors bear re-reading, no matter how much we love them the first time around.

As a teenager, I devoured the novels of Iris Murdoch. For a few years, I couldn’t get enough of her. But later, when I went back to my favorites — A Fairly Honorable Defeat and The Sandcastle — they seemed dated and lacked the depth I’d once admired.

The same goes for James Salter’s Light Years. When I first read it, I decided I had rarely encountered a more finely crafted novel than this. The beautiful language blew me away. But when I re-read it, I was unsettled by the casual misogyny.

And yet there are some books I re-read in order to be unsettled. Take V.S. Naipaul, whose shameless self-regard and occasional racism has put many readers off his work. Even so, I look forward to re-reading A Bend in the River, this month’s selection in a book club I facilitate. I also enjoyed re-reading A House for Mr. Biswas. Since I’ve taught In a Free State, I’ve read that collection many times, and The Enigma of Arrival remains one of my all-time favorite Naipaul books. I’ve returned to it often because he makes me think and never tries to please or make the reader like him.

There are also some books we grow into. I have grown to love Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for example, although when I first picked it up, I found it impenetrable. I read it again in graduate school, and then again in my 50s. But it wasn’t more careful reading that was needed. I just had to mature. I simply wasn’t ready for it the first time.

Which brings me to Middlemarch by George Eliot, which Woolf called “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Alice and I bonded over it, too. And if Austen’s Emma has my all-time favorite opening sentence, then Middlemarch takes first prize for my favorite concluding one, which I shared at Alice’s memorial service because it reminds me of who she was:

“The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The novels we re-read will mold us in surprising ways. I see that the protagonists of Alice’s favorite Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, greatly resemble Alice herself. Elinor Dashwood and Ann Eliot are warm, intelligent, discerning women who are sometimes underestimated. They are also guarded and bear their heartaches privately.

I am convinced that Alice grew with her re-reading of Austen. I believe she was nourished, comforted, and instructed by their lightness of touch and their wisdom. I look forward to re-reading Sense and Sensibility in February with my book club. I expect it will be like revisiting an old friend, but I also anticipate meeting someone new.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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