I have lately been reading, in small doses, a book called A Fine Brush On Ivory, by Richard Jenkyns (Oxford University Press, 2004), which is a study on Jane Austen's writing. It got me thinking, quite a lot, on why, exactly, I think Jane Austen is so great, and what particular things I should try to learn from her.
So far, as I read through the book, I have concluded (I feel a bit like Sherlock Holmes saying things like this) that Jane Austen's gift is ordinariness and restraint. That doesn't sound quite like I mean it to. But what I admire about her writing is that she takes tiny, small situations with a limited amount of people and an almost non-existent amount of novel-type drama and looks at the drama, at the depth, at the comedy, in ordinary people. Charlotte Bronte couldn't see why Jane Austen caused so much fuss; she thought her books were empty of all proper novelish feelings and scenery and passion. But since my mother died, I have come to realise that when drama happens in real life, it's not generally marked with screams of anguish or wildly beating hearts or whatever it is often marked with in fiction. Real drama is often more subtle than that. A day before Mum died, I was sitting talking with my father (whose first wife, the mother of my siblings, died about 24 years ago) and one of my sisters, and we were listening to Christmas carols. As Away In A Manger played, my Dad suddenly said, "That song has extremely vivid memories for me." He explained that he remembered putting my sister Felicity, who was only two, to bed one night. While next door her mother was in her sickbed, dying, Dad and Felicity lay on the bed singing Away In A Manger.
For me, that story has so much power and poignancy and personality. It involves no hysterics, no wild emotions, no crushingly depressing dialogue. Yet it is more real than most things I've read or watched on TV on the subject of death; it is more dramatic than drama.
Richard Jenkyns writes, Jane Austen's is a chastened art. Her instinct to purify and concentrate tells her to keep the scenery to a minimum. ... It is significant, too, that there is even less overtly dramatic incident in her later novels than in her earlier work: she does not develop her range in these later books, not, as we might have expected, by taking obviously bigger themes, but through yet more intimacy and refinement. They become even more 'ordinary'. (page 22)
So, in four paragraphs, that is the main reason why I think Jane Austen is great. That is what I am trying to teach myself. Of course there are other things I think she does masterfully, better than anyone else, but if someone were to ask me one reason why I love her writing so much, that would be what I would say... maybe in a more concise version!
[Photo at the top: Lake Tekapo, in April 2005. On same road trip with Eva.]