Around Christmas I did a Zoom reading and discussion of “A Life of Her Own” with the delightful members of the Central Missouri Region of JASNA — the Jane Austen Society of North America. They also asked me to toast Miss Austen’s 247th birthday — an honor I’ll never forget. Here is what I said:
Today we celebrate the birthday, the life, and the extraordinary career of Jane Austen. While we all are conversant with her writing, I thought it might be refreshing for us to hear from some of the people with whom Jane worked.
I found Elinor Dashwood Ferrars outside the Delaford Rectory, collecting sprays of holly with bright red berries to decorate the house and church for Christmas. I asked what she had learned from Miss Austen during their collaboration.
“Oh, she was wonderful! I have never met anyone – lady or gentleman – with such discernment. In the bleak time when I expected Edward to marry elsewhere, Miss Austen counseled me not to despair, that people change. ‘Know your own happiness,’ she said. ‘You want nothing but patience –or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.’ She was so wise – I will never forget her.”
I next traveled to Hartfield to speak to Emma Woodhouse Knightley, but was disappointed to find that she and her husband were traveling in Scotland. As I walked back to Highbury, the large and populous village, I saw Miss Bates looking in a shop window, and I introduced myself.
When I asked her opinion of Miss Jane Austen, her characteristic smile became even broader and her eyes gleamed. “Dear Miss Austen! She is such a treasure! She has taught me that all people, no matter what their station, deserve to be respected. And once Miss Austen came to my rescue.
“That was when Miss Woodhouse teased me on Box Hill, when a game was proposed for everyone in the party to say one thing clever, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull indeed. I said I would be sure to say three dull things as soon as I ever opened my mouth. But Emma mocked me, saying ‘There may be a difficulty: you will be limited to just three.’
“I was quite pained, and it was Miss Austen who saw my tears. She immediately sent Mr. Knightley to remonstrate with Emma for her insolence and lack of feeling. That incident made Emma aware that she had been cruel to me. But we made things up. And now dear Emma – she won’t let me call her Mrs. Knightley; she says our friendship is too close for that; isn’t she a treasure?”
I had written to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy to ask for an appointment, and to my delight I was invited to meet her at Pemberley. A maid showed me to the elegant morning room, where I was met with a beautiful tea service and Mrs. Darcy. When I asked her to tell me the most important thing Miss Austen had done for her, she laughed.
“It would be easier to list the things she hadn’t done, for without her I would never have married the perfect man or lived in this magnificent home.
“One of the most important blessings Miss Austen bestowed on me was my family. While I loved them all, my sister Jane was dearest. Of course ones parents are most important to children, but my mother was obsessed with finding us husbands and didn’t seem to care who they were.
“Her manners often were embarrassing, and my father did not engage much with any of my sisters, excepting Jane and myself. And so Miss Austen built a home and family which was imperfect – but that was very clever of her. It demonstrated that children of the same couple can be very unlike in nature, that children are independent souls who think they know the world long before they do if not carefully guided. Have you heard about the debacle caused by my sister, Lydia?”
I nodded. “Well, then, we need not resurrect that piece of trouble.
My numerous imperfections are obvious to any reader. I cannot bow to people of higher class if they try to dictate how others should live. Thanks to Miss Austen, I had a long and lovely time debating everything Lady Catherine de Bourgh pronounced as to my unworthiness to marry her nephew. Miss Austen used Lady Catherine’s diatribe to make Darcy and me understand the eternal depth of our love. I know of no other couple who are as perfectly happy as we. Of course,” she smiled mischievously, “he sometimes needs a bit of correction.”
When we read Miss Austen’s books, we become so eager to be entertained by her characters and her prose we don’t always pay sufficient attention to the living gifts she offers. Patience, treating the poor with respect and helpfulness, understanding the needs of children – all of these are just a few of Jane’s teachings.
So please raise your glass to celebrate the unsurpassed writer whose work has lasted nearly 250 years and who has become a dear friend and model for us all.