Monday, December 14, 2009

The Radiance of Jane Austen by Eudora Welty

This is the second essay in A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. In "The Radiance of Jane Austen", Eudora Welty addresses the lasting quality of Jane Austen's work. I thought it a rather soothing perspective after the horrifying predictions of the future made in my last post.

Welty begins by evoking a similar dreamy state to the one I was in when writing "The Reader's Discussion Guide":

Jane Austen will soon be closer in calendar time to Shakespeare than to us. Within the reading life of the next generation, that constellation of six bright stars will have swung that many years deeper into the sky, vast and crowded, of English literature. Will future readers be in danger of letting the novels elude them because of distance, so that their pleasure will not be anything like ours? The future of fiction is a mystery; it is like the future of ourselves.

When these words were written, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was still part of that murky future. Welty spends the bulk of the essay placing Jane Austen firmly back in the time of her Regency world while probing the effects of a modern perspective on the reader's experience. The problem is that her modern perspective is thoroughly 20th century in its themes of alienation. For example:

For many of our writers who are now as young as Jane Austen was when she wrote her novels, and as young as she still was when she died, at forty-one, ours is the century of unreason, the stamp of our behavior is violence or isolation; non-meaning is looked upon with some solemnity; and for the purpose of writing novels, most human behavior is looked at through the frame, or knothole, of alienation. The life Jane Austen wrote about was indeed a different one from ours, but the difference was not as great as that between the frames through which it is viewed.

This essay was originally published in 1969, long before the massive resurgence in Austen's popularity that has occurred over the past 20 years. Welty died in the summer of 2001, just before that pivotal event that has so shaped this new millennium. The 21st century is just as violent and isolated as the 20th, if not more so, but I think we have learned to laugh at absurdities once again. Austen has never been more popular and, I believe, never better understood. The turmoil of our world drives readers to Austen (whose world we know to have been rather turbulent itself, despite it's appearance) because we long for the remarkable solicitude she provides. Welty concludes by emphasizing a sense of immortal stability one finds in Austen's work:

No, Jane Austen cannot follow readers into any other time. She cannot go into the far future, and she never came to us. She is therefore forever where she wrote, immovable to the very degree of her magnitude. The readers of the future will have to do the same as we ourselves have done, and with the best equipment they can manage, make the move themselves. The reader is the only traveler. It is not her world or her time, but her art, that is approachable, today or tomorrow. The novels in their radiance are a destination.

I take great comfort in this essay. Sure there maybe Werewolves in Highbury, of much greater concern than gypsies, no doubt, but no matter what corruption anyone (including myself) might unleash onto Austen's timeless classics, we shall always be able to return to the proper stories and experience their familiar joy once more. They are like a cozy quilt and a mug of hot chocolate on a winter's day: absolutely priceless.

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