Why Jane Austen Is Like a Woolly Blanket and a Cup of Tea

I began this blog because I love, love, love cozy mysteries. Finding a body in the library is my idea of a good read.

But sometimes a girl wants the cozy without the mystery.

Last month, when the stress of the holidays started creeping in, I ditched the mystery I had been reading to visit an author who always takes me to a warm, comforting place: Jane Austen.

Persuasion, to be exact.

This book isn’t new to me. When I opened the cover, I knew precisely who the characters were and what was going to happen. But I didn’t care. For me, reading Jane Austen is like curling up in a woolly blanket while sipping a cup of tea.

I’m amazed how a writer who was only mildly successful in her lifetime is an icon more than two hundred years after her death. Her stories have been reprinted, reimagined, and revered in almost every conceivable format: books, e-books, television, movies, and, yes, comics.

What is it about Jane Austen that sends me to my bookcase for one of her novels?

First, her plots are timeless. All a person needs do is look at how many times they have been updated and reimagined for a modern audience. The movie Clueless is a retelling of Emma. Drop that plot in the middle of California teenagers in the 1990’s and it still works. Books galore have borrowed Jane’s plots and updated them for today’s readers. I can easily find at my neighborhood bookstore Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary or Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith.

Think about what Jane’s plots were about: romance, vanity, silly characters who take themselves too seriously (Mr. Collins, I’m looking at you), stupid decisions that bounce back in spectacular fashion, witty dialogue, and a woman’s search for independence in a man’s world. These are all themes that still resonate today.

Also timeless is her polished and accessible writing style.

Out of curiosity, I pulled up a few of the novels written during the same period. I wanted to compare Jane Austen’s writing with other works that were wildly popular at the time.

(Disclaimer: I’m no literary historian and don’t claim to be. I’m just a curious girl in a curious world and like to form my own conclusions)

I took a deeper dive into Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. I thought it was a good comparison, particularly since Jane herself used it in Northanger Abbey as the reason Catherine Morland sees her friends and acquaintances as romantic heroes and mustache-curling villains.

Since I have never read an 18th century Gothic novel or reveled in their ghosts, castles, and roguish highwaymen, I was a bit surprised that the story covered four volumes. Then I tried to read it, starting at Volume I, Chapter I, page one and soon realized why so many trees were sacrificed for one tale.

Even after accounting for the old-fashioned style of writing, getting past the excessive number of words was daunting. For instance, on the first page of the first chapter, Mrs. Radcliffe describes the library:

The library occupied the west side of the château, and was enriched by a collection of the best books in the ancient and modern languages. This room opened upon a grove, which stood on the brow of a gentle declivity, that fell towards the river, and the tall trees gave it a melancholy and pleasing shade; while from the windows the eye caught, beneath the spreading branches, the gay and luxuriant landscape stretching to the west, and overlooked on the left by the bold precipices of the Pyrenees.

Whew. I don’t know about you, but my eyes glazed over by the time I hit the gentle declivity.

Compare it to Jane’s description of Kellynch Hall in the first chapter of Persuasion.

Wait, there is no direct description of Kellynch Hall in the first chapter, other than mentioning it when introducing the reader to the characters:

The Kellynch property was good, but not equal to Sir Walter’s apprehension of the state required in its possessor.

Without going overboard with physical description, the reader knows by the time she reads this sentence that Kellynch was a once stately home with gardens and dining rooms that had to be rented out because of Sir Walter’s vanity and poor financial judgment. In the hands of Jane Austen, the house becomes a reflection of Sir Walter’s character without numbing the reader with the placement of chairs, the kinds of books on the shelves, or the view out of the window.

And, yet, I have a picture in my mind of the home that sets the story in motion. When the plot is character driven, a reader’s imagination supplies the supplementary details.

During our current pandemically upended times, curling up with Jane Austen, a woolly blanket, and a cup of tea is like finding an oasis in the middle of the Sahara. It’s a center of calm, rest, and rejuvenation for the soul.

And not a body in sight.

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