A Book For Trying Times
By Susan Chira, New York Times Book Review. December 2016.
There are grim passages in our lives when each day begins and ends with dread, when endurance is a form of victory. In one such time, when the life of someone I loved was hanging in the balance, I turned to reading for solace. The diagnosis was grave, the treatment arduous and life-threatening in itself. My days and nights were kaleidoscopes of terror: weekslong hospitalizations, middle-of-the-night sprints to emergency rooms, daylong drug infusions at clinics, beeping monitors, doctors’ verdicts.
Though I read voraciously in good times and bad, it soon became clear that not just any book would do. I couldn’t get through a new book; it was too hard to summon the energy to concentrate. I needed the comfort and relative ease of familiarity, the literary equivalent of a warm bath.
I picked up my worn copy of “Pride and Prejudice.” An uncle who had a secondhand-book store in the East Village gave it to me as a birthday present when I was 11. I was too young to appreciate much of it, and struggled with the archaic language. But the enduring delights of this novel seduced me then as now: the spirit and wit of Elizabeth Bennet, who defies convention by spurning the hand of the wealthy, haughty Mr. Darcy; the pomposity of Mr. Collins; the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet; and the slow journey toward self-knowledge that finally unites the lovers.
In “Pride and Prejudice,” tragedy is held at bay. The suspense revolves around whether Bingley or Darcy will fall in love or be driven away by inferior social standing, or how badly the Bennet family will embarrass itself at the next ball. The most serious crisis is the seduction of Elizabeth’s sister and how it affects her marriageability.
Rereading, I did not need to race through the book wondering what would happen next. Like many Jane Austen fans, I could recite some of the best lines by heart. This predictability was the perfect escape from a regime of keeping vigil at hospitals, the panic of awaiting test results, the ever-present taste of fear. With the outcome of the novel never in doubt, I could savor the language, satire and repartee, the cutting observations cloaked in seemingly innocuous remarks. Humor is a balm; I needed badly to smile, and Austen was irresistible.
A dose of aggression, too, seems essential for reading that’s done in search of solace. Anger and suffering, after all, go hand in hand. Austen may be celebrated as the quintessential novelist of manners, but her wit can be cruel and her portraits unsparing. There is a guilty pleasure in savoring the moments of mockery, since they usually puncture hypocrisy, obsequiousness or arrogance.
When something terrible hits you unexpectedly, the universe seems out of balance. It’s random, and it’s cruel, and it’s anarchic. There are no certainties. Evil could just as easily triumph as good. Jane Austen’s self-enclosed world enveloped me, soothing in its contours and assumptions. I didn’t know the end of my own story, and my mind raced toward horror.
Even when the wily or wicked mar Austen’s universe, they do not prevail. Like the grounds at Pemberley, an inherent order shapes the physical and moral landscape. Nature is tamed, and human nature too. Wickham is brought low, even though he has corrupted Lydia. Elizabeth may have been duped, but she sees clearly by the end.
It is that dollop of wisdom that elevates Austen from a simple comedy of manners. It’s not too heavy-handed or even, I concede, that profound. But pure beach reading wouldn’t have comforted me. I wanted escape, but I needed moral resonance. For as delightful as Austen’s static world may be, it is the humbling, bracing confrontation with the self that lifts her characters beyond caricature and her plots beyond Harlequin romance.
In Austen’s universe, the gravest crises may be moral, but these moral failings induce suffering. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth shows a man shaken from the easy complacency of wealth and self-regard. Elizabeth is shamed by her misjudgment, and by the humiliations Darcy endures to rescue her sister.
I was lucky at the end of my own saga. Life righted itself, and I savored the grace of normalcy. I still reread “Pride and Prejudice” once in a while, along with the quieter favorites like “Persuasion.” I recently saw a production of “Sense and Sensibility” by the Bedlam theater company, which injected Austen’s calm certainties with a revivifying dose of mad improvisation and physicality. It reminded me how infinitely adaptable her work is, and how grateful I remain for the comfort I found in her pages.