Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Moment in 1814: Jane Austen and the Beauty of the Ordinary

Jane Austen was, among many things, a realist. Though she writes fiction, the details of her early 19th century fictional world are painstakingly accurate. In letters to her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy, Jane doles out writing advice to her niece who appears to be working on a novel. And she gets quite particular about unrealistic details in Anna's text. For instance, 

On characters who travel from one location to another in one day:
They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath. They are nearly 100 miles apart.

Boating Beach, Dawlish, England
CC BY-SA-2.0 by Snapshots of the Past

On accurately depicting interactions between members of different social classes:
I have also scratched out the introduction between Lord Portman and his brother and Mr. Griffin. A country surgeon (don't tell Mr. C. Lyford) would not be introduced to men of their rank, and when Mr. P. is first brought in, he would not be introduced as the Honourable. That distinction is never mentioned at such times, at least I believe not.

(Umm...wouldn't that be fabulous, having Jane Austen as a writing coach?!)

However, Austen does not create her realistic worlds through elaborate descriptions. She actually scolds poor Anna Austen Lefroy for this:
You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.

So we see very few physical descriptions of characters or landscapes in her novels. 

Every so often, however, we get an extended description of a physical landscape or scene that gives us an incredible glimpse into what Austen herself saw in her mind's eye and her powers of description, if she chooses to exercise them:

"Harriet, tempted by every thing and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. 

Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; -- Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; 

And when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer." 
Emma, Volume II, Chapter 9

The detail here is exquisite. In fact, it could very nearly pass for directions to a screenplay for a scene in a movie or play. Except that they are directions given to us from the past. The 1814 screenplay for Emma, by the novelist herself. And I can't help feeling thrilled at that. :)

I like to stop and slowly re-read the text again, imagining the scene, playing the movie in my head. Try it! Admittedly, much of this imaginary set in my head looks strikingly similar to Lacock Village in Wiltshire England, where the BBC's 1996 Emma was filmed. :-)

Jane Austen's Writing Desk, Jane Austen House Museum
CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 by alh1

Sometimes I wonder...

...did Jane, sitting in her small cottage in Chawton, writing, suddenly look out the window, so caught up in her story, that for a moment she expected to see "Mr. Perry walking hastily by, or Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule"?

But instead of seeing Mr. Perry or Mr. William Cox at that moment, she sees an old woman, shopping basket over her arm, two dogs fighting over a bone, and some children peeking into the baker's shop window.

So Jane, pausing for a moment to imagine what Emma sees looking out the doorway of Ford's, sees an ordinary quiet, English village scene -- one that hardly compares with Sir Walter Scott's epic histories or Gilpin's famed picturesque -- and gives us that one. A scene of nothing, really. Yet that nothing answers perfectly.

I'd love to think that we are seeing one moment in 1814, one that Jane herself saw from the dining parlor window. 

Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton
CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 by Jacqueline.Poggi
This cottage where Austen lived for the last 10 years of her life, writing and revising her novels, sits at the center of a small rural village much like the fictional Highbury.

The photo below  is actually the view from Chawton Cottage where Austen lived, onto the main village road. Despite the modern veneer, I can just imagine this scene with gravel roads, dirt lanes, the tidy old woman, mangy dogs and scrubby children... just as Jane describes them.

View from Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton 
CC BY 2.0 by Roller Coaster Philosophy
But perhaps she really saw nothing out the window that day, but with a mind of her own, "lively and at ease," could "do with seeing nothing." So she gives us Emma in place of her nothing. 

As a result, 200 years later we get a glimpse into a world that has become a mystery to us. We have no documentary video or photographs, just Austen and the others like her, who have given us windows into their worlds. In this case, the world of an ordinary, middle class, genteel, English woman, living in a quiet rural village, which suddenly, because of the passing of time and a modern life that is so radically different from hers, becomes not ordinary, but incredibly interesting. 

I am ordinary too. I have a quiet, one might even say, boring life. Yet I love my life. I love the quiet, ordinary moments. There is beauty, interest and joy in those ordinary moments.

And I love that in the midst of those ordinary moments, Austen, with lively imagination, creates beauty, joy and interest that never fail to delight.

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