Updated: Apr 29
“A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife...."
Women past seven and twenty may be past feeling affection in general, but we can still love Jane Austen's novels. I keep coming back to these books, over and over. I've had some thoughts about how long I've been reading them, and how my feelings towards them have changed a little over the years.
1) I’m older than Elinor and Marianne’s mom. The heroine’s ages are always given in Austen novels, and many of the other young characters. The older generation don’t usually have their ages given; maybe because it is too sad. (Over thirty, my dear!) But, from a remark made in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood’s age is given as forty. We can guess at the ages of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Morland, and I am right there with them. Poor Mrs. Woodhouse probably didn’t survive her thirties. Because of the information recorded in Sir Walter’s favorite book, we know that Lady Elliot died sixteen years after her marriage, so likely, also her thirties. I’d say that Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price were probably right about my age.
When I began to age past the Austen heroines (even Anne!), I was afraid that I’d begin to dislike them. My life wasn’t anything like theirs and I didn’t think by then that it ever would be. I had a job that I couldn’t stand, I had headaches all the time (hi, Fanny!), and there was some financial anxiety that the Dashwoods, at least, would’ve understood. So, OK, some similarities. There was a dire lack of Mr. Tilneys or Darcys or Knightleys around, as everyone else has noticed before me. The marriage of the main character is always the thing that brings the most happiness, and in some cases, alleviates the characters' main concerns. When I aged past Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Elliot and into the "years of danger," I began to wonder if there was still anything for me in these books that had been such a comfort to me when I was unhappy. So I looked closer.
As I became less interested in the romances, I was more interested in the characters' growth. I also began to be more interested in the friendships and families. Reading this at the mothers' ages made me more sympathetic to them, even Mrs. Bennet. (I think that Mrs. Morland is the best surviving mother. I think Lady Elliot would’ve been very good, too.) I became more appreciative of Lady Russell and Mrs. Weston, who stepped in to a mother's role and were so helpful. (I'm aware that Lady Russell doesn't have a perfect record on this.)
2) I’m older than the older men! Colonel Brandon was only thirty-five. Mr. Knightly was thirty-one. They really seemed so much older to me when I was young, and now I’ve aged past both of them. Marianne pokes fun at Brandon for needing to wear a flannel waistcoat on a damp, chilly day, and you know what? I am ALWAYS cold when it’s damp out, and I think that a flannel waistcoat would be delightful. What would Marianne think of me?
3) Like many others, I have more and more sympathy for Charlotte. I wonder what unmarried women without independent means in the Regency era would think if they could know that in the future, a woman like them could get a job and support herself. It makes me more grateful that I can earn my independence. I can live on my own, drive a car, have a bank account. Reading these books set in another era helps me to really appreciate all these things.
4) I am older than Jane Austen herself was when she died. Now that I’m older, I wonder if there would have been more women over twenty in her books if she could've written more. Her last heroine was twenty-seven. For the time that she lived in, that was seen as pretty aged, for a woman. Maybe she wouldn’t have gone much older for a main character, but there were interesting older women in Persuasion. I’ve always liked Mrs. Croft so much, and while Lady Russell isn’t anyone’s favorite character probably, she is likable. Even Mrs. Musgrove is fun to read about. It would’ve been interesting to see who else might have shown up in later books. Even if she stuck to the marriage plot that she was so good at, maybe one could have been written from the viewpoint of someone older, like a confidante of the young woman in the story. I guess Lady Susan is kind of like that, except that the older woman is the mother and the villain at the same time. (I love Lady Susan. So much hypocrisy on display. Hilarious.)
Even when I was very young and reading Austen, I knew that her death at forty-one was far too young, and like so many, I’ve wondered what wonderful books she might still have written. Now, it's astonishing to me that we have as many as we do- that she did so much in a comparatively short time. Maybe if she’d had more time, we would have had ten or twelve or twenty Austen novels. This, children, never becomes less disappointing, or at least not at the ripe old age of forty-four.
5) One really good thing: after around 35, I stopped comparing myself to any Austen heroines. It was always an unfavorable comparison. I knew by then that hardly anybody is as smart and confident at 20 as either Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse is. I love them and it’s entertaining, but they weren’t a realistic comparison for me, and I think not for most of us. I was always more like Fanny Price, who almost everyone hates, but I related to the way she sits in the background and looks at the stars and keeps her thoughts to herself. Now I don't kick myself for not being like any of her main characters.
I don't have any deep conclusion to draw from these observations. It's just what's been floating around in my head. I think about Jane Austen kind of alot. For fellow Janeites, my other Austen musings can be found here.
I'd love to hear about anyone else's feelings about Austen. Have they changed over time? Are you at the beginning of your Austen fandom? Let me know in the comments!