Early in her book A Walk with Jane Austen, about her trip to England to follow in her literary idol’s footsteps, Lori Smith writes, “I’ve always felt a kinship with Jane . . . a closeness many of her readers wrongly assume. She feels like a dear friend. Could we meet her, though, she would no doubt find the ridiculous in us, wherever it lurks.”
As her last sentence suggests, this is no ordinary Austen tribute — which is something of a relief, as a walk through the local Borders or a scroll through Amazon brings up enough of such tributes to make up their own subgenre. The Seattle Times, for example, aptly called the January 2008 PBS Austen extravaganza an “Austen orgy.” An article in the Washington Post’s Book World, roughly contemporaneous to the PBS airing, put it in this way: “A scan of recent Darcy literature yields almost two dozen titles, including period sequels that extend the life stories of the Darcys, the Bennets, and the Bingleys, as well as present-day encounters with Darcy reincarnations, ghosts or plain old fantasies.” In fact, a search for “Mr. Darcy” yields more results than a search for the author’s own name.
Amusing as that particular trend can be, it suggests something worth taking seriously. The Post suggests that in an age saturated with media coverage of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, “Why wouldn’t we be wistful for the rules of conduct that shaped Austen and her characters? Our unpredictable, aggressive world makes the drawing rooms of Austen’s era a refuge.”
One could go even further and ask to what extent the throwing off of Austen’s kind of values contributed to the aggressiveness of the society we know — and yet relatively few Austen aficionados seem to have drawn this connection, or investigated those values in any real depth. Consider Bridget Jones’s Diary, the wildly popular update of Pride and Prejudice from a few years back. The sex life of the heroine, supposedly based on Elizabeth Bennet, would have shocked her counterpart, who had a few old-fashioned ideas about “how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue.”
Smith’s (with whom I blog at “The Point”) point of entry is precisely this interest in Christian virtues; Smith shares not only Austen’s delight in a good love story, but also Austen’s keen observational skills, her dry humor, and, most significantly, her Christian faith.
Granted, the book begins with the frank observation, “I’ve always loved Jane Austen. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that I, like so many women, think Colin Firth [of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice] as Mr. Darcy is the ideal man.” From that most conventional of Austenite beginnings, however, Smith takes a widely divergent path. The curiosity about Austen which drove Smith to England was about more than just her idol’s literary prowess or romantic ideals.