It is a universally acknowledged truth that a reader of novels must have, at some point of time, read a book by Jane Austen. I cannot recall when I first read my first Austen. I suspect it was Pride and Prejudice during my adolescence. Like many other girls of that age, I probably cast all my images of romantic heroes in the mold of the dashing Mr. Darcy.
But Pride and Prejudice was much more than a romantic novel, Jane Austen herself never intended it be read as a Mills and Boon variant of the time. When I read it again a few years ago, it seemed to be richer, more rewarding. Having grown as a reader, I could better appreciate the finer nuances of the language and understand the motivations of her characters. When I moved on to her other works, it was the cool wit of her prose, her wry yet compassionate tone , the keen observations and inferences of human behavior that drew me into the story. Her heroines were real women, endowed equally with vices and virtues, vulnerable yet valiant in the face of misfortune, they blundered but redeemed themselves. I cringed at Catherine Morland's absurd flights of fancy , chided Emma for meddling in other people's lives and warned Marianne Dashwood against throwing herself foolishly after an obvious rake. Through all the books, I was rooting for the women, wanting it to turn out well for them. Jane Austen did not disappoint. The endings always had a sense of having come home after a turbulent passage. I could imagine a tranquil English countryside and a gentle whiff of freshly cut grass as the gentleman and lady embarked on a companionable stroll.
I rediscovered Jane Austen when I was trying to write my first book. I hoped to write a worthy book, a sweeping saga that gradually unfolded the travails of several generations of a dysfunctional family or a searing incisive allegory on our society, a novel with loads of angst, lashings of magical realism, devious sub texts and carefully crafted paragraphs. It would be an Important Serious work. But I didn't have a single noteworthy idea and could not come up with even a profound first sentence. The only story that I thought I could tell with any degree of conviction was based on my own observations and experiences of the world, a story that seemed trivial and fluffy compared to the great tome that I wanted to pen.
Austen herself had to contend with the public opinion at her time that novels were a trivial pursuit compared to serious essays, diaries and poetry that were in vogue then. She did not publish under her own name and wrote furtively in her room , airing her views on the world around her through her characters. In Northanger Abbey , she reacts to disparaging remarks about the novel by describing it as- " in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed in the best chosen language. She had no great literary pretensions and in her characteristic tongue-in-cheek manner described herself ' with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.' It was the spirit of Jane Austen who whispered to me that it was perfectly all right to a novel in a light hearted way, with interesting characters and a happy ending. I finally wrote my book the way I wanted and enjoyed the process so much that I didn't worry about whether it would turn out to be a Great Indian Novel or not.
Despite some critics accusing her of being concerned with mundane things like marriage, money and morality,( imagine large air quotes around the word mundane) Jane Austen continues to be relevant more than 200 years after her birth. Her books are still on the shelves of all bookshops, required reading in literature courses, the inspiration for several films across the world, including India and the subject of book club discussions and cults. She had published only four books during her life time, two were published posthumously. Her death in 1817 due to a prolonged illness at the age of forty-one, was premature. I would have loved to read more of her work. She had not delighted us long enough.