It is April 1st, April Fool's Day, though I prefer to see it as April Wonder Day, though fools deserve their place, too, and maybe fools are wonders.
I enjoy Verlyn Klinkenborg's columns and I love to read Jane Austen. I like what he says here, especially since there is an article in the NY Times today on senior girls from Newton North High School. Each one sounds amazing, and it seems today it is important to be intelligent, yes, and also very "hot." Looks still top brains, even now, and certainly, "hot" is in the eyes of the beholder. I think Jane Austen was probably quite sexy and certainly she was astute. It would be lovely to envision her preparing to be accepted by colleges. This column seems timely.
If Jane Austen Were Among Us Now, Whom Would She Cast as Herself?
What did Jane Austen look like and why should we care? The only undisputed portrait — a drawing of the novelist in her nightcap — was done by Austen’s sister, Cassandra, about 1810, when Austen was 35 or so. Almost anyone who examines this naïve portrait is likelier to impugn the artist than the model. And yet a Ms. Helen Trayler, who works for an English publisher, has recently said of Austen, “She was not much of a looker.” That’s why Ms. Trayler’s company has beautified this portrait for a new book. Austen’s cheeks have been rouged a little, her nightcap has been removed, and she now looks like a stern cross between the logo for Columbia Pictures and the head on a Roman coin.
This is only the beginning of the Jane Austen makeover. A new film about her will come to this country in August. It is called “Becoming Jane” and stars Anne Hathaway, who was last seen in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Ms. Hathaway is indeed a becoming Jane. Publishers of “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” and the rest of Austen’s works should simply reprint a still from the film — Ms. Hathaway in Georgian costume, superbly blushed and coiffed and playing cricket — and call it “Jane Austen,” with the quotation marks. The novels would be so much richer if only we could believe they were written by a looker.
I reread “Emma” recently and found myself wondering, what if we knew as much about Shakespeare’s life as we do about Austen’s? And what if we knew as much about Austen’s life as we do about Virginia Woolf’s? No one would give up the chance to have 150 letters by Shakespeare or 26 years of copious diaries by Austen.
But the work always stands apart from the life, no matter how much we know. No amount of biography — no grasp of the details of the life as it was lived — ever accounts for the transfiguration that takes place in the work itself. You can search all you want in the life, but you will never find the ghostly separateness, the act of imagination, in which the work emerges.
I was only a few pages into “Emma” when I realized that I was reading with a smile on my face. It wasn’t just renewing acquaintance with such old, old friends — Emma Woodhouse herself; her ailing and slightly querulous father; Mr. Knightley (whose given name, I always forget, is George); and the grand female talkers in the book, Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton.
I was smiling at feeling the very separateness of the world the novel creates and at watching the adroitness with which the author governs the reader’s awareness. The text of Austen’s novels is the most persuasive biographical detail we can ever have of her. Her work is the product of her unremitting attention, and we can see the character of that attention — that mind — more clearly in the novels than in anything else we know about her. The same thing might be said of Woolf, about whom we know so much more, and of Shakespeare, about whom we know so much less.
I had not only forgotten that he was George Knightley. I had forgotten that in a polite spasm of near-disgust, Mr. Knightley says to Mrs. Elton, “Come on a donkey, however, if you prefer it.” I had forgotten that Emma had introduced a “large modern circular table” to her father’s house and how closely her patronizing chatter with her protégée, Harriet Smith, resembles the patronizing chatter of Mrs. Elton herself, for whom Austen’s favorite stage direction is “laughing affectedly.” One of the great pleasures of a reading life is picking up an old, familiar novel thinking that rereading it will mean a kind of reminding, when, in fact, the novel makes itself new all over again. It is as if the novel holds itself apart, waiting for real life to erase enough in us to make us suitable readers once more.
I never wish I knew how pretty Austen was or how she dressed or how her voice sounded. (On the other hand, I wish intently that modern publishers did not care how handsome or beautiful their authors are.) But let me put it a different way. I would like to know how anyone who lived 200 years ago talked or sounded or dressed or ate or felt.
I would recover all the unrecoverable details about any life that passed in those days just to come to terms with the distance and the difference of the past — and I do mean any life, not just those of the writers or the statesmen.
It is a failing to read Shakespeare and feel impoverished by the lack of biographical detail. It is no less a failing to read Austen and wonder what the mirror said when she looked into it. I cannot think of anything that would make “Emma” richer than it is.