So much of what I long to see, smell, eat, or experience when I travel, I first discovered in a book. It’s an understatement to say Jane Austen’s whit, whimsy, and wisdom have influenced my life. Because of her, I have a fascination for lofty manor houses, Elizabethan architecture, the art of taking tea, British literature, the Cornwall coast, observing society and all of its mores and double standards with both a nod of reverence and twist of mouth, and asking for “porridge,” instead of oatmeal, on my first trip throughout the whole of England. Today marks the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death at the premature age of 41. To my fellow Janeites, I say we should lift a cuppa to honor her.
I never fully moved into my little cottage two and a half years ago (who can move in completely to 860 square feet after years of thrice the space?), so my china remains safely stowed in the shed out back. A handmade potter’s mug will have to do. Austen, a tea-loving Brit, is said to have purchased her tea directly from Twinings—also, the Queen’s tea of choice—and, according to one of her personal letters, she loved Wedgwood. I’ll admit buying mostly medicinal herbal teas lately, however, I think I can root out some Twinings from my odd-teas basket, a hold-over from my last house. That means the tea is a bit aged. Though I judge myself, it’s really about the perfect temperature of water and not squeezing the bag. But, I digress.
Loving Jane Austen just happens; it can’t be taught, though the fever can be pitched (thank you, PBS, and you’re welcome, Daughter). I first read Pride and Prejudice sometime in tenth grade, along with Pygmalion and plenty of Shakespeare. I discovered a love for period literature that asks questions about society “norms” and assumptions, as do I. With Pride and Prejudice, I soaked up the suppressed Elizabethan mirth, the kinship feeling with Elizabeth Bennet for her tomboyish high spirits and honest speech full of irony, the manor houses and parties, the crushes and confusion. She crafted a timeless young adult world in which I could relate and escape, then and now.
After reading all of her works, and once I realized loving Austen was a team sport, I watched all of the film adaptations and exchanged themed gifts with my writer friends. One of my favorite film adaptations is the Hugh Grant version of Sense and Sensibility. I have no idea how many times I watched it while I sewed little clothes for my daughter, but it was enough times that she grabbed a snack and watched it through with me over and over.
When my daughter was a little older, I pulled my copy of Pride and Prejudice from the bookshelf and handed it to her. She looked dubious, however, it was summer and she was bored, so I had the advantage. I said, “Just give it a try. You love Sense & Sensibility after all…” She took it and disappeared for two days, bringing it back with a look of amazed satisfaction. “I love it,” she said, and so, we put it on her bookshelf. This led to annual winter weekends with blankets, roaring fires, and snacks strewn across the living room to watch the six-hour version with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, another favorite of ours. Before long, a few of her girlfriends expressed interest in the Austen weekend, and so, we spread the love. And that’s how it has probably happened in some form or another for 200 years.
And, then, there’s my quest for Mr. Darcy. I’m happy to say, I believe I’ve found him, with pride and prejudice conquered anew in the 21st Century. The only time I turned away from an Austen opportunity involved a choice between a Cornish pasty and at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. I choose the Cornish pasty; I have my reasons (another favorite British author), but I admit, I have some regrets. Back to Bath, I’ll go.
What makes a great cuppa to me, is the china and the sharing. I have neither, in bone or flesh today, but I don’t feel alone. After dinner—in following the Regency custom, rather than Victorian afternoon tea time—I’ll turn down my air conditioning and lift a perfectly warmed mug of Twinings to say to my other Austen-loving intimates, “Hurrah to Jane!”