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.
“In the midst of her light stories,” Smith writes, “Austen seems to have captured the essential, unspoken truths about who we are and why we do what we do. Hers are characters in the truest sense of the word, in that their motives and desires are exposed, moral victories and failures on display.” It is in this way, Smith holds, that Austen’s faith “evidences itself in a gentle way in her writing.” The Jane Austen whose quiet, but sincere belief infused both her life and work in an age when nominal professions of faith abounded, is the Jane Austen who intrigues this particular fan.
Since Smith, who traveled all over England to visit the places that Austen knew and loved, could hardly chronicle her own adventures without drawing us into her life, the book has the feel of a double biography rather than a mere reflection on Austen. The effect is a juxtaposition of two Christian women living in very different times, and an examination of the insight that one gains from the other.
Austen’s charming romantic comedies, at first glance, appear worlds away from the life of a young woman battling depression and a long-undiagnosed debilitating illness. However, Smith’s exegesis of twenty-first century issues of faith and romance likely would have resonated with Austen. A major theme of the book is Smith’s attempt to understand and define her own faith more clearly when, like many evangelical Christians today, she finds many of her cultural and political values increasingly at odds with those with which she grew up.
Additionally, Smith invites the reader to witness a love story, albeit an often confusing and frustrating one. Few authors have done a better job than Smith of capturing the vagaries of modern Christian dating life; single Christian women will smile knowingly, for instance, at her brief but trenchant description of “those Christian guys — the kind who just don’t commit, who are still growing up at forty.
The risk of a self-portrait-via-author-biography, of course, is that the book might drown in self-absorption, and yet the impression the reader brings away is anything but that of a self-absorbed woman. Perhaps this is because Smith, like Austen — but unlike so many Austen fans — does not romanticize. Precisely because she admires and emulates not just Austen, but also Austen’s deep and sustaining faith in God, Smith brings to her writing a clear vision and a disarming awareness of her own shortcomings. Writing of a Bible study group she joined called “The Inquisitors,” after the famous passage from Dostoevsky, Smith recalls, “In retrospect, the name was ironically apt. We judged the church harshly and . . . in the process, bickered and lost each other.”
It is this kind of relentless honesty about herself that sets Smith’s book apart, not just from the typical Austenite book, but also from the typical modern-day critique of faith. From her fellow Christian in another century, Smith has learned a little something about grace and “the value of an ordinary life” that, as for the author whom she admires, mitigates her harshness.
Lori Smith has no delusions about being a second Jane Austen, but the qualities they share — their common ability both to find humor and to extend grace — justify the connections she makes between their two lives. The book may not have been written as a serious work of scholarship, but it makes this invaluable contribution to contemporary thinking about Austen: By the end, the good Christian girl with the biting wit no longer seems a contradiction in terms.