The first Jane Austen novel I read was Sense and Sensibility. I knew little about the author or her oeuvre, but I was interested in English literature classics, and after Dickens, Swift and Stevenson, it felt like the natural next step. There was no conscous decision to pick Sense and Sensibility over Pride and Prejudice or Emma; it was simply the Jane Austen novel most readily available to me at the time.
The book was like a slap in the face.
The story was set at a time and place far away from my reality, in the quaint English countryside at the end of a remote century, when ladies wore bonnets and gentlemen dressed in breeches. However, it quickly proceeded to diligently and systematicallly dissect people that I felt I knew already. Sir John Middleton was just like a member of my immediate family. Mrs Dashwood rather reminded me of my grandmother. Mrs Jennings jovial comments were copies of those of our next door neighbour. The similarities were uncanny.
Above all, there was Elinor.
Put it quite simply: I was Elinor, the responsible elder sister, the good listener, the girl wise beyond her years who took on a lot more responsibility than she ought to. It was as if Jane Austen had been watching me all these years, discreetly taking notes on my innermost feelings and using them to flesh out the character in her novel. I even had experienced my very own Lucy Steele-related incident just a few months before, when a supposed new “friend” had made me my confidante regarding her romantic interest in a fellow schoolmate I also (secretly) fancied.
However, Jane Austen’s depiction of my teenage self went much beyond what the casual observer may detect, for Jane understood that, as well as Elinor, I was also Marianne.
I was Marianne because a part of me had recently gone through the roller coaster of falling in love with the wrong person in the most public way possible. I had been infatuated with someone who had made a fool out of me (not quite a Willoughby, he was more of a Frank Churchill, as I would learn when reading Emma). The experience had been devastating. Reading about Marianne’s heartbreak was like going through everything, all over again. I cried when she cried, and her pain felt genuine, just like mine had been a few months before.
I had never felt so naked. It was as if Jane Austen had stared into the abyss of my soul and had depicted my two opposing halves in the novel, each represented by a different sister. Elinor and Marianne told the world everything there was to know about me, and it was scary. So much so, in fact, that I did not recommend Sense and Sensibility to any friends for years. To strangers, yes, and with a passion; but never to those who I feared might recognise me in the two Dashwood sisters.
With experience I have come to appreciate that here lays the magic of Austen’s writing: she is able to dive into the essence of human beings and pinpoint exactly what makes us flawed, hateful, lovable. The apparently banal situations her characters are put through are simply excuses to allow us to observe the best and worst of our nature. In the worlds of her making, behind the façade of country dances and peaceful walks, Jane Austen cuts through to the core of the human experience and emerges victorious, taking no prisoners and mincing no words.
Jane Austen may have left this world 200 years ago, but her greatness remains.
As for my slapped cheeks: needless to say, I went back for more. The subsequent re-reads have worn of the sharp edges I encountered the first times, and they are more like gentle nudges these days, but they never cease to surprise me.