Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen

Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen

Rachel Cohen

The following was published in The New Yorker on July 17, 2020.

By Rachel Cohen

About eight years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author. I read her before going to sleep, and whenever I woke in the night; I read her at my desk, when I couldn’t make progress with the biography I was supposed to have finished writing; and on the slow bus that crossed the river to the ob-gyn. I would come to the end of a scene and turn the pages back to read it again, almost without noticing.

Was this a retreat, a seclusion? Life was running thin and fast across unfamiliar land. A baby was coming, a baby that M. and I had wanted for a long time. I had lived and taught in New York, but now we were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where M. was teaching. My desk was in our living room. My father had been ill for several years, and we waited, anxiously, for news of his health. News from the rest of the world was grim: war was escalating in Syria; in February, Trayvon Martin was killed. The coming election felt tense and consequential. At night, I folded up the day, as I did the small clothes people were giving us—uneasily.

In the past, when I was in the middle of a project, if anyone happened to ask me what I was reading, I was relieved. To say “I’m reading ‘Nervous Conditions’ ” or “I’m reading Russian poets” was to say, among other things, “I’m paying attention.” If you had told me that years were coming when the doings of a few English families would come to define much of my reading imagination, I would have been appalled.

I read Austen, as Virginia Woolf said, of reading “Mansfield Park,” “two words at a time.” Of all the fragments and snatches I had nearly memorized, my favorite was the scene toward the end of “Persuasion” when Anne Elliot (the book’s lonely, independent central figure) argues with her friend Captain Harville. They are discussing who loves with most fidelity—men or women. Harville, whose marriage has endured many stints at sea, sides with men, noting that books always portray women’s inconstancy. At first, Anne struggles to respond. She has been silent for much of the book; on the rare occasions when she has spoken, no one really listens. But, faced with Harville’s provocation, she finds new courage. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” she says. “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” Instead, she speaks from her own experience and observations of love and mourning, insisting that women are capable of “loving longest when existence or when hope is gone.”

Why is it important for Anne not only to mourn but to make a declaration of what she understands about mourning? At first, I didn’t think about the question, I just loved the feeling of the scene, its openness, the sense of a breeze. I sat on the bus that went across the river, a finger holding a place in “Persuasion,” thinking about the baby who was coming, my father who was ill. I felt, dimly, detached from both the past I thought I knew and the future I had expected.

Our baby was born in the spring of 2012. All our parents were there. In September, my father made another visit, for a conference. He was a professor of organization theory, interested in leadership and collaboration. He studied the ways people learn and work and play together. On that visit, he and I took a long walk around Fresh Pond, in Cambridge, the baby alert and looking around from her stroller. I did not allow myself to think what would turn out to be true: that it would be my last real walk with my father. He told me that he thought I should consider returning to teaching, and I was frustrated with him.

In many ways, death was a presence in the world our child entered. Reading the news, violence was at times viscerally close, at others far away and unreal. In December, my friends wondered how to tell their children about the twenty-seven people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. By Christmas, my family and I had begun to understand that my father was very ill. In February, he died. We were all able to go home to be with him. Grief runs through the whole of life, and leaves nothing untouched.

Our daughter’s growth contained daily efforts and beautiful moments. She liked to be held up to look at the stop sign on our corner. In April, I sent a picture of her with the sign to a friend, who texted me to stay inside; Cambridge was under lockdown, after the Boston Marathon bombing. The standoff ended with shots we heard through our open kitchen windows.

I was mostly reading “Sense and Sensibility” then, and sometimes I scolded myself: war was girls giddy over uniforms, servants spoke once or not at all, poverty was easy to overlook. Our daughter was not yet two when I was able to get pregnant again. When I went to the hospital to give birth, I brought “Pride and Prejudice” with me. All through the incredibly snowy winter and the beautiful spring that followed, I came back to seven words: “Till this moment,” Elizabeth Bennet says to herself, holding Mr. Darcy’s revelatory letter in her hand, “I never knew myself.” I did not know why these lines felt clear and whole and inexhaustible, but they did.

Days with the children were hazy, repetitious, intimate. I can no longer remember when I first read Lionel Trilling’s last, unfinished essay, “Why We Read Jane Austen.” Trilling had taught a course on Austen at Columbia University, in 1973, amid constant anti-war demonstrations on campus and the deepening Watergate scandal. He was astonished when more than a hundred and fifty students pleaded to enroll, as if to read Austen were a “vocation” and a way to express “disgust with modern life.” His students, he wrote,

who so much wanted to study Jane Austen believed that by doing so they could in some way transcend our sad contemporary existence, that, from the world of our present weariness and desiccation, they might reach back to a world which, as it appears to the mind’s eye, is so much more abundantly provided with trees than with people, a world in whose green shade life for a moment might be a green thought.

A green thought. Was Trilling saying that his students were nostalgic traditionalists, looking backward in their search for meaning? Or did Austen contain a kind of idealism, a way of looking forward? What I knew was that the novels kept pace with me as I worked to hold on to memories of my father while trying to imagine what the future would hold for my children.

By then, our son was old enough to sit up. We took him around Fresh Pond in a stroller, as we had taken his sister. I had decided I would try to write about reading—and rereading—Austen. Although I have spent most of my adult life writing portraits of artists and writers, I had given hardly a thought to whether Austen’s own life and family might illuminate the themes of continuity and rupture I felt in her work. In Claire Tomalin’s biography “Jane Austen: A Life,” I was surprised to discover that a quiet but profound displacement divided Austen’s life. Austen grew up with her brothers and sister in a modest and cheerful family home in the rectory at Steventon, where she wrote the first drafts of what would become “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Then, just before her twenty-fifth birthday, her father, with whom she was very close, announced that they would move. As the story goes, when Austen learned they were leaving, she fainted and fell to the floor. After their departure, the family travelled around for many years. Her father died, and Jane, her mother, and her sister entered a condition of genteel homelessness. As I read this, Austen’s novels began to fall into place. I could hardly believe that I hadn’t noticed that “Sense and Sensibility” begins with a father’s death, and then follows the Dashwood sisters as they try to find a new home.

After leaving Steventon, it was eight and a half years before Austen was settled again, and she could write books to completion. She published four novels between 1811 and her own death, in 1817, at the age of forty-one. The manuscripts she left, of “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey,” were published by her family posthumously.

Running through the losses in Jane Austen’s life—of her father, her home, her confidence in the future, her space to write—were the fissures of her world. Austen lived and wrote and died in a period that might have seemed to her almost as convulsive as ours does to us. Throughout her life, England poured its resources into building a maritime empire of rapacious and complex power. Austen spent several summers near the coast, anxiously waiting to hear if Napoleon had invaded. After 1807, when the United Kingdom finally banned the trading of enslaved people—though not the practice of slavery itself—Austen’s brothers, Frank and Charles, helped patrol the waters to catch illegal slave ships.

Austen’s own sympathies were firmly with the abolitionists. She lived in Frank’s household, not far from the shipping hub of Portsmouth, and wrote often to both her brothers while they were at sea, learning from their firsthand reports about the conditions of the enslaved people onboard.

And yet, in her books, historic events appear glancingly, and may be easily overlooked by a modern reader. The slave trade is hardly mentioned explicitly—once in a few lines in “Emma,” and again in a famous passage in “Mansfield Park.” That novel’s heroine, Fanny Price, leaves her poor family in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park with her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and his family. Sir Thomas also owns an estate in Antigua and, we can infer, the enslaved people who would have labored there. He is a severe patriarch, who treats people as means to acquiring property—or else as property themselves. (As Edward Said observed, “To earn the right to Mansfield Park you must first leave home as a kind of indentured servant or, to put the case in extreme terms, as a kind of transported commodity.”) After Sir Thomas returns from a journey to the West Indies, Fanny asks her cousin, “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” She is referring to a scene that seems of the utmost importance, but which Austen has deliberately left out of the book. The report of the conversation passes so unobtrusively that many readers of Austen, myself included, only answer Fanny’s question much later, perhaps with consternation: No, I didn’t hear you.

When I went home to be with my father for the last time, I brought “Mansfield Park.” What I thought I wanted from the book was Fanny’s secret room, high up under the eaves, where she goes through the keepsakes of her childhood, remembering the family from whom she has been separated. I wasn’t thinking about Said, or forced labor, I wasn’t even listening to Fanny—not entirely. But the book sustained me because it had a complicated geography that connects different families and a various history. There are many ways that you can lose a childhood home; grappling with the loss is part of how you make another sense of home, another view of the world.

In the apprehensive summer of 2016, the water protectors were at Standing Rock, the country was waiting for another election, and our family was moving to Chicago. At the airport, our daughter, now four years old, hoped for a good omen—that ours would be the plane with a rainbow painted on its tail. We arrived in a new city, and began to learn the neighborhood. Places I had written about in earlier books were now before my eyes—a few blocks north, on Woodlawn, was the place where Elijah Muhammad had lived and where James Baldwin had dined in “The Fire Next Time”; we were often in Grant Park, where the police had assaulted protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

By then, the long essay I had been writing about Austen had stretched and twisted and was turning into a book. But certain friends’ voices nagged in my mind. “Comfort reading,” one intellectual had said, briskly. “Austen is domestic,” another had noted, looking around our living room.

For the first time in five years, I was about to return to teaching again, as my father, on his last visit, had urged me to do. I was excited, nervous, and sad. As I prepared for my class, I wondered what he would make of this place he had never seen us in, what he would think about the books I was reading, or the one I was writing.

What I would have given to talk to him about the world. That summer, photos of children dying in Syria, Yemen, and El Salvador appeared on my screen; by September, more than three hundred thousand migrants had crossed the Mediterranean. Looking back through essays about travel, reading, and art, many seemed encased, unaware of the world. I did not think of assigning Austen; reading her still felt like a private concern of mine. I had taught writing about voyages and islands before, and I decided to do so again, but, this time, to think more about forced migration and flight. I would still teach V. S. Naipaul’s “The Middle Passage,” but I would add Edwidge Danticat’s essays on Haiti, and chapters from Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography.

My class that autumn was bisected by the election. We met the morning after the vote. No one was quite sure what to do. We read a poem out loud, slowly. It was “Crusoe in England,” by Elizabeth Bishop, a bleak poem about being shipwrecked on a volcanic island, and about whether it is ever possible to feel at home. Our different voices sounded the patient attention of the whole. In the weeks and months that followed, I, like many, searched for signs that it was still ethical to do contemplative work.

With a colleague, I had begun editing an anthology of migration stories from people at the university and in our neighborhood—stories beginning in Vietnam, Bolivia, Puerto Rico, Mississippi, India. When I tried to talk to my children about these stories, I felt that they knew I was talking to them about death. Another summer came, and we waited for the midterm elections. M. and I took each of our children to the emergency room for the kinds of injuries that children get at playgrounds. In June, we made signs to carry at a protest against family separations. Our son wept because he could not yet write, and the signs seemed so important.

In the study at the top of our house, I kept losing, and sometimes finding, my way through “Mansfield Park” and “Emma.” Gradually, I was learning a more radical, difficult Austen, who was already familiar to many other scholars. Beginning in 1811, Austen’s brother Charles, his wife, Fanny, and their small children were on harbor duty in Portsmouth, aboard H.M.S. Namur. The Namur was a storied ship, which had seen action in the wars for American independence and the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar. The Namur was also a ship that Olaudah Equiano had served on, in 1759, and had later written about. Regardless of whether Austen read Equiano, his book circulated widely after 1789. The beauty of his language and the living voices of his many characters became a part of the language of the abolitionist writers who read him, like the historian of Clarkson, whom Austen, as she wrote to her sister, was “in love with,” and William Cowper, Austen’s favorite poet.

Since Paula Byrne’s “The Real Jane Austen” (2013), it has become widely accepted that Austen named the Mansfield estate in her novel after Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who laid the judicial groundwork for the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The fictional Mansfield Park is no beacon of liberty, so Austen must have intended something complex when she chose to associate the novel with the actual Lord Mansfield, a man whose public and private life ran together in interesting ways. He and his wife did not have children of their own, but they raised two adoptive daughters. One was their great-niece, Dido Belle, born in 1761. Belle was the daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, a British naval officer, and Maria Belle, a woman who was enslaved in the West Indies. History has not yet found any record of how Maria Belle was treated or what she thought when, in 1765, her daughter, only around four years old, was brought to England to be raised by her great-uncle. Dido Belle would have been about eleven when Lord Mansfield wrote, in Somersett v. Stewart, that the institution of slavery had persisted long after the reasons for it had been “erased from memory,” and concluded that “no authority can be found for [slavery] in the laws of this country.”

Austen became acquainted with the other daughter of the Mansfield household in 1805, a year or so after Dido Belle died. Austen may have wondered, as others have, whether Belle, who was given an education and went on to be her great-uncle’s private secretary, had an influence on Lord Mansfield’s work. In the book that shares the Mansfield name, Fanny is a poor niece, not a servant, and certainly not enslaved. But, at ten years old, she is brought against her inclination to an uncle’s house and forced to understand certain dynamics of power.

Walking with a companion one day in a green hedgerow, Fanny considers the nature of memory:

There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul! We are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Fanny uses the language of empires—their obediences, tyrannies, and inequalities—suggesting an intertwined understanding of personal and historical memory. Over time, that understanding, born of the rupture in Fanny’s life, helped me to think of my father and his history without turning away from the world.

Our children are eight and five now. My father is often on my mind, but it’s only happened a couple of times that I’ve really felt his presence—one day, walking at Fresh Pond, when the wind was up; once in a plane, flying low over the water. Thoughts of him come back at unexpected moments, and incompletely, as history has a way of doing.

On a spring morning last year, I read the news—hundreds of people were buried after a bombing in Sri Lanka, the President had tweeted about impeachment—and then I went to a colleague’s graduate seminar, to talk with her students about “Emma.” The students had also read a personal essay of mine about reading “Emma,” which had become a part of my book. My colleague had told me about her own book, which she had been working on for ten years. It was hard, she told me, to finish a project begun in such a different place, with different ideas and aspirations. When class began, I found myself saying to her students that books are like that: they very often have more layers than they can quite contain. This is part of what makes a book a place that a reader can return to at different times over the course of a life.

Austen herself worked on ideas, scenes, phrases, and characters in “Emma” on and off for twenty years. There was another Emma, in a novel she called “The Watsons,” a book Austen gave up writing after her father died. That Emma, too, was very lovely, and especially lovely with children, and found a right place among a community at a country dance. The later Emma bears some similarities to her, but Austen’s preoccupation with leadership—“in every respect, it suited Emma best to lead,” she writes—probably developed later, when war had long been part of daily life. Austen wrote the last version of “Emma” in the months leading up to the Hundred Days War. The Allies had begun to march on Napoleon again just as Austen finished her manuscript. Emma must reckon with her own Napoleonism; she is what Austen calls “an imaginist.” Lost in her imagination, and in herself, Emma is, as she eventually realizes, susceptible to “insufferable vanity,” to grandiosity and “unpardonable arrogance,” to tyrannical attempts “to arrange everybody’s destiny.” But she is also capable of another kind of imagination, one which helps her pay attention to others. Austen sees the true faculty of imagination not only as empathy but as a kind of groundedness in a difficult world.

It interested me, talking with the students about “Emma,” after years of fighting with it myself, to see how eagerly and painstakingly they read the novel. To them, it was natural to argue over Austen and the institution of slavery, Austen and the position of women, Austen and the Napoleonic Wars. It was even natural for them to discuss my relationship to Emma. The students told me that personal criticism gave them a different way to think about the relationships they had to reading. One of the students was from Cambridge, and he said that he had often walked around Fresh Pond, where I had described walking with my father. I realized that my father was now a figure in the landscape of someone else’s imagination. My essay—a kind of conversation with Austen and with my father—was not a declaration of the kind Anne Elliot makes, but I had written it to think about what it means to love “when existence is gone.” The students, too, were finding ways of walking through books—across time and within history. A “green thought” is neither nostalgic nor utopian; it is a way of moving with other people over rough ground.

This excerpt is drawn from "Austen Years," by Rachel Cohen, which is out in July from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Rachel Cohen is a professor in the creative-writing program at the University of Chicago and the author of three books, including, most recently, “Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels."

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July 21, 2020