This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, the incomparable eighteenth-century novelist. The world is celebrating in a plethora of ways, often clad in Empire gowns and tight pantaloons. Austen is one of the few critically acclaimed writers who has generated an almost idolatrous fan following, called Janeites. The Jane Austen Society of North America has over 4000 members, and the annual Austen festival in Bath, England, attracts thousands and, in 2017, set the Guinness World Record for “the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costumes.” Jane Austen Societies are found as far afield as Japan, the Netherlands, and Brazil.
A new 10-pound Bank of England note with Austen’s portrait goes into circulation this month. It features an apparently apt quote from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” However, Austen aficionados will recognize that the quote comes from the conniving Caroline Bingley, who has no genuine interest in books but is merely preening for Darcy. Another physical tribute to Austen was unveiled in the town market of Basingstoke this summer: a life-size bronze statue of Austen costing 100,000 pounds. My hometown of Seattle is joining in the Austen fun. The Seattle Public Library sponsored a Jane Austen Day; two regional theatres are producing world premieres of new Austen adaptations; and the University of Washington is hosting a JaneFest with academic talks, needlepoint, informational booths, trivia, a fashion parade, and—of course—a Regency Ball.
Austen only completed six novels and an epistolary novella during her brief life (she died at the age of 41), but her stories, characters, and prose continue both to captivate and to change readers across many times and cultures.
Some Janeites write novels exploring the later lives of Austen’s well-loved characters, especially Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Others don period dress to play whist or debate the Napoleonic wars. Blogs and discussion boards feature Austen arcana, and an ingenious YouTube series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, presents a modern vlog version of Pride and Prejudice. Films and television series based on Austen’s work place her plots in locales as varied as contemporary India, Southern California in the 1990s, and an alternative-history England terrorized by zombies.
The term Janeite was coined by the critic George Saintsbury in 1894 to indicate those few but discerning readers who appreciated Austen, but Rudyard Kipling’s 1926 short story “The Janeites” depicts common British soldiers in World War I turning to Austen’s fiction as comforting reminder of the values for which they were fighting. Since then the term sometimes is used disdainfully about Austen adulation and other times is worn as a badge of honor.
Austen’s unusual power is exemplified in A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, which, as its subtitle states, discusses How Six Novels Taught me about Love, Friendship, and the things that Really Matter. Deresiewicz’s memoir recounts his arrogant disdain of Austen as “chick lit” throughout graduate school, a disdain that dissipates when he reads the novels and discovers their depth and ability to transform his life.
For even while Regency breeches, buckles, and balls offer an exotic escape to a distant culture, Austen’s concomitant affirmation of the value of everyday life, the depths of human nature, and the traditional Christian virtues are truths that travel across space and time. Of much that Austen’s works have prompted me to ponder, one of the simplest yet most perceptive involves kindness. Austen herself was a notably kind person. Although she never hesitated to skewer self-importance with keen wit, her nephew wrote in his Memoir, “She never turned individuals into ridicule.” One of the perhaps less recognized virtues of her protagonists is their discreet kindness, especially to family members. Poor Blanche DuBois, the protagonist in the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, had to famously rely on the kindness of strangers because her own family lacked that quality.
Kindness is one of the Biblical fruits of the spirit and is related to the virtue of charity, yet it contains the additional connotation of a pleasant disposition and genuine respect informing one’s concern for others. In Ephesians 4, kindness is associated with being “tender-hearted.” In tight quarters, particularly those of family and village life, kindness is a difficult art that demands more than generosity and assistance.
In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s unconventional muddy three-mile walk to visit her sick sister, Jane, attracts Darcy’s admiration for her sisterly care, but such gifts are more difficult to bestow on more annoying family members. Jane is the kindest of the Bennets, as is shown by her lack of willingness to believe ill of anyone and her patient attendance on Mrs. Bennet when she is prostrate over Lydia’s elopement with the wicked Wickham.
The eponymous heroine of Emma has so many flaws that Austen worried that no one but herself would like her, but she is redeemed through her unfailing kindness toward her elderly valetudinarian father. When he attempts to serve his guests gruel rather than rich foods, she quietly provides them with minced chicken and scalloped oysters. When her impatient brother-in-law tires of Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities and hypochondria, Emma deftly manages to keep the peace, and when she falls in love with Mr. Knightley, she will not marry him and upset her father’s domestic life until a suitable plan to keep Mr. Woodhouse happy is devised. The crisis of this novel about a small circle of ordinary people in a rural village revolves around an instance of rudeness, which is a more likely flaw in our lives than dramatic elopements, blackmail, or assaults.
Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion, includes the kindest protagonist of all. The quiet Anne Elliot provides gentle care for all around her: soothing her fussbudget sister Mary, gamely playing the piano for country dances, and honoring the family’s responsibilities to their tenants. Despite the fact that she, as the daughter of an arrogant baronet, has the highest social rank of any of Austen’s protagonists, she demonstrates the most steadfast kindness.
Though the 200th Anniversary hoopla will be surely grand, Austen beautifully reminds us in her work that it is the small things that matter.