By Jacquelyn Sorensen
I can’t remember what started my reading of JA’s books. Perhaps it was a high school assignment, or perhaps I came upon them while haunting the local library. In any case, I’m pretty sure I read Pride and Prejudice first, in my early to mid-teens. Throughout high school and college, I absorbed each of her other books, relishing them all for various reasons.
In the years since, of course, I have reread the books many times, most notably in the quiet dark while breast-feeding my firstborn. We had many a nourishing night together, taking in our own forms of life-giving sustenance.
Jane Austen’s devastatingly sharp perception of human nature, her innate skill with words, and her fierce sense of irony have a perpetual charm. Her piercing depictions of our least admirable traits are fascinating and a bit humiliating. Hmm. I behave like that myself sometimes, don’t I? Oh dear. I’d certainly be skewered should her eye ever fall upon me! Of course, her response might be the tart rejoinder that no one is entirely without folly. Or not. She had a pretty strong ego, it seems.
My enjoyment of JA has been solitary, with the exception of a class I took at UCSD in the extension department. A bunch of us showed up weekly one summer to discuss the books, the characters, and their author. Those discussions took place about 20 years ago and I recall nothing now except how intriguing it was to listen to others’ ideas about the characters, the mores of the time, and the ways JA did and did not seem to fit in. I’d enjoy participating in such a round table again.
In reading works by women of other eras, it has struck me over and over again that we have always had to strive against restrictions to our ways of thinking and being in the world. There were some very early instances of woman-centered societies thousands of years in the past. However long or brief they were, those matriarchal societies have been thoroughly eclipsed for a very long time.
Artists like JA adeptly remove the veil that enables societies to perceive and treat women as negligible and persuade us to collude in our own obliteration. With her clear sight and keen writing, JA encourages us to take a closer look at those with whom we interact, and to make our judgments based on the range of an individual’s qualities and behaviors, rather than upon just one, such as gender, alone.
That said, neither JA nor anyone else has been able to rid us of our snap judgments and prejudices. Just as well if, like JA, we merely want to enjoy making fun of the resulting idiocies. Still, we cannot ignore the damage done by blind judgments. “Some of the enduring appeal of Jane Austen’s stories lies in her ability to keep that conundrum alive in our own minds and perceptions, as we manage the challenge of living in each other’s company.”