Our Reading Lives

How I Lost and Found Jane Austen

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I was a Janeite from the first time I read Pride & Prejudice when I was ten. Her independent-minded female characters have maintained their allure for readers for over 200 years now, so I know I’m in great company. Over the years, my allegiance has shifted from one young lady to another, and another. I developed crushes on Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley, and during a particularly dismal teenage phase, Henry Crawford. I am a coaster-carrying member of the Republic of Pemberley, who I know would welcome me back with open arms though I have not visited that fair country for ages upon ages. I know there are people out there who are not fond of dear Miss Austen, and with age and wisdom I have come to understand that it is okay for them to be simply and wholly incorrect. We can still be friends.

One fateful year, I made the disastrous decision to set my cap, for real and for sure, at one of my best friends. Let’s call this fellow Daniel, which is not his name, just to be clear. We’d been close for a dozen years, and every time he left a relationship, we would dissect it for hours while he told me that things would have been better if only she were more like me. The only thing keeping Daniel and I apart, I came to believe, was the distance between the West Coast where I lived and the East Coast where he did. After all, the words from his own mouth implied — in some cases explicitly said — that the only thing those women had that I did not was a closer zip code.

In our decade-long friendship, Daniel and I developed a shorthand around a lot of things, as friends often do. There were inside jokes galore, and one of the longest-running ones centered around the works of one Jane Austen. He thought my interest in them made me a little basic and a lot more romantic than my outward brand indicated. I countered that it was his own fault for being as clueless as Edmund Bertram, which predictably sailed directly over his head. “Okay, Jane…” was a common retort from both of us. Anyway, it was A Thing.

In 2012, Daniel came back to the West Coast, heartbroken to have called off his second (if not third; I don’t recall) engagement. For those of my readers who are attracted to, well, really anyone, allow me a word of unsolicited advice: you may think this kind of situation is Your Time. You may believe it with all your marshmallow heart, grown three sizes with hope and joy. You are most likely very, very wrong.

Broken-hearted people break hearts.

Daniel came home and we crashed together, feelings upon feelings and hearts entangled. He didn’t have any sense of gravity, I know now. I hadn’t yet learned that I can’t fix anyone but myself. We curled up on the couch and marathoned Doctor Who, went to movies, and talked for hours. He told my best friend and her husband that we should do more couples dinners. I gushed to my wary friends that things were finally, finally right. I ignored red flags and ran red lights. I talked my friends into being cautiously hopeful. I introduced him to my best friend’s mother, who made him dinner and called him a darling.

And then one day, Daniel came back from a weekend trip to Los Angeles, where he had attended a party with some friends in The Industry. He had been a little odd for a few days, but nothing tiredness or the stress of job hunting couldn’t explain. He arrived at my best friend’s mother’s house, where she and I were housesitting for the weekend, and instead of coming inside, sat me down on the sidewalk and told me that we couldn’t be Friends With Benefits anymore because he had met a girl in L.A. and was “trying out long distance” with her. “You’d love her. She’s just like you,” he soothed, attempting to mistake my shock for worry. “She’s smart, red-headed, and a Janeite, just like you! In fact,” he said, “she actually plays Lizzie Bennet on the internet.”

All I could do was blink and nod. I left my body, I am completely sure. I went inside and he drove away. I cried and yelled and cursed his real name. I tried to understand how someone who had teased me relentlessly about Jane Austen, who had refused to read the books or watch the movies, could leave for the actress who played Lizzie Bennet on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. (Said actress is, by all accounts, a lovely person; obvs none of this is her fault.)

Over the next weeks and months, as I indulged in the misguided desire to watch their socials, I saw him support her and get excited about Jane in a way that flabbergasted me. And as a result, the very name of Miss Bennet and her creator cut like knives every time a line came to mind, a scene replayed in my head, or I looked at my many, many editions of Jane’s work. I came to think of my beloved novel friends as childish, trite, and shallow. I relegated Jane to a back room bookshelf and told people I’d “grown out of [her].” Somehow, when Daniel chose to celebrate the Janite passion of someone else when he’d been rather shitty about mine, it felt like he’d stolen Jane from me — along with Doctor Who, which he also gleefully shared with his new love.

In the last decade I have done a lot of work; my life has changed substantially, as one would hope over 25% of a life so far. I knew that cutting out Jane wouldn’t heal the wound, and yet. As time went on, gifs began sneaking in. Truths universally acknowledged stopped raising the hairs on the back of my neck. I read a book or two about Jane, dancing around her name and formulating theories via time traveling novels about whether she actually died of Addison’s disease.

When someone uses something you love to hurt you, even inadvertently, that thing becomes a weapon. It takes time to reforge it into something safe. Jane would be the first to tell me that her books are meant to illustrate not just love overcoming societal odds, but growth and understanding between people. That is why they endure. My belief that I, too, can grow in forgiveness and understanding has eventually brought me back to Jane, who was patiently waiting for me the whole time.

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