Like any romance loving woman, Jane Austen has a special place in my heart. When I heard that a movie was coming out this summer featuring her life (in Theatres August 3rd), I sought out the book on which it was based: Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence.
I never know what I’m going to learn when I pick up books on a whim. This time, I was just hoping for a mild romantic tale with some historical significance (literary allusions are always a bonus). However, I ended up with a fairly academic inquiry into Jane Austen’s letters and formal writing. In short, I learned a lot about the life of a woman struggling with a lot of the same issues that I face, 200 years in the future.
There’s little concrete information available about Jane Austen’s love life. She never married and died of Addison’s disease when she was 42 (I’m not ruining the movie, folks). In order to create a story that featured a romance, Spence needed to make some creative leaps and large conjectures about one Tom LeFroy, who was in her life around the time she was writing Pride and Prejudice. According to Spence Pride and Prejudice was all about Mr. Lefroy: “It was her unique way of thinking about Tom Lefroy and celebrating her delight at being in love – and at being loved. The novel that she later called ‘my own darling Child’ was to be a gift of love for Tom Lefroy” (104).
What most astounds me about Spence’s argument about this relatively short period in Austen’s life (from October 1796-August of 1797), is how much Austen used autobiographical information to inspire her creative work. For example, Spence argues that contrary to our typical romantic notions, Elizabeth Bennet does not resemble Jane Austen much, but Miss Bennett has a lot in common with this Tom LeFroy (102). On the other hand, Mr. Darcy has more in common with Jane Austen herself, perhaps, Austen’s most autobiographical character! I’d always assumed that novelists like Jane Austen were gifted with the ability to conjure up characters and situations out of pure imagination. Spence makes a strong case that many of the most cherished elements of Austen’s fiction have their basis in Austen’s real life.
Jane Austen’s sphere of influence was very limited. She might have only known a relative handful of people, in the days before automobiles and instant messenger. I’m reminded of the statement Mrs. Bennet makes to the Bingleys, in an attempt to brag about her sphere of influence: “I know we dine with four and twenty families” (I.IX). Certainly, 24 families isn’t a lot of people to know! Jane Austen probably had a very similar level of acquaintance, perhaps even more limited, due to their lower class level. We have connections to so many more people now that we can watch them on television, e-mail them, or check out their blog each day. In short, we have more life available to us to write about!
All this goes to say that perhaps we should spend less time bemoaning our lack of natural creative genius and spend more time looking for the “novel” qualities in life around us. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains this unique writer’s perspective: “I learned to be like a ship’s rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down” (xxiii). Writers are watchful. They patiently look and listen for writing opportunities.
So, while I’m waiting for my Aslans to come bounding in (see my blog post on this topic), I’m also going to keep my ears pricked people or circumstances that God strategically places in my life. You never know when you’ll meet another Elizabeth Bennett, or if you’re lucky, a Mr. Darcy.