So much of contemporary literature requires an author to be the uneasy, broody adventurous sort. If you have led an exciting life then you have material. On the shelves of libraries and bookstores are works by famous restless reporters and travel writers who have roamed the world in search of quirky druglords and penniless dancers. But what happens when you have spent a lifetime behind the bars of your routine, the only walls you see every day are those of kitchen, living room and grocery store. Where then will your stories come from?
This is why I love Jane Austen. She had the life of an 18th century woman cocooned in a conservative middle class English family and yet she wrote the most wonderfully nuanced romantic comedies, full of delicately poised moments. Could it be she spent so much time indoors, noticing and analysing every fleeting expression that transited over the faces of loved ones and friends that these became the fodder for her stories? With that trademark gruelling archaic dialogue, these classics it turns out are not just simple love stories. Most of the scenes in books like Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility take place in living rooms and gardens, and though innocuously titled, they are unputdownable in their own slow food kind of way.
What made her great were the dimensions she gave each character, for instance Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, who settles for and marries the oblivious Mr Collins to secure herself a sinecure marriage of sorts. But it is not so clear cut. Austen keeps writing out Charlotte and she emerges from those delightfully shambling paragraphs as someone who is not that easy to deride or even pity. We begin to admire her strength and common sense. Not for her the romanticism of Elizabeth Bennet or the shy beauty of Jane. She’s no heroine and she’s middle-of-the-road happy, not for her the dizzy joy of denouement. Lizzy Bennet is at first scornful of her decision to marry the bumbling and officious Mr Collins. But she comes to respect Charlotte, though still not for this decision, but for what Charlotte makes of her lot in life. She seems to come close to what we know of the real Jane Austen, who never got the chance to be a Lizzy Bennet, and her life was apparently not a romantic comedy. It is not clear whether she ever loved anyone, all we know of her is that she flirted a bit, but mostly remained at home living with her sister where she used her superb intellectual resources to write her novels. From this confinement and this taking of her circumstances in stride came some of the best literature.
Once you get the hang of the knotty language, you find an author who is unpretentious and worthy of her craft. Whether it’s really compelling television or a good book, the reader or viewer recognises the work of someone who is genuine and unassuming. Prejudice or even Persuasion are books I could curl up with every year as a ritual. Under the covers late in the night, I loved to go through them all over again to find something new, details and shades I had missed in previous readings. Any work, if turns out to be good, had to have been somehow edgy and reassuring at the same time, like time travel episodes on Star Trek and Lost. With some Borg and their space cubes thrown in for good measure these episodes of Trek were gripping or as in Lost,when Desmond was jolted through time in search of his constant Penny.
Authors are constantly going on about finding stories outside of their lives, and they have made it taboo, or have made it out to be laziness, when another author, not them of course, turns to their own life for fiction. If you are not as intrepid as they are in finding the exotic and unfamiliar, why can’t we explore the exotic, unexamined moments of our own lives for fiction. Most of what we chat about in our daily lives is fiction anyway. When we describe an event or an incident, we pull ideas around to stretch-fit the image of the version of events in our heads. When we use our words to fit the idea in our heads, we are rubber-banding our limted vocabulary to articulate the moments of our lives. A lot of imagination flows into our everyday conversations and we are not even conscious of it. If like Ms Austen you want to employ your life in the cause of good fiction then go ahead and do it. Don’t let another author’s do’s and don’t’s stop you from finding meaning in your own life when you are writing or attempting fiction.
So much of writing these days is much too full of itself, affected and condescending lacking heart and humility_ turning to Lost once again, like its last season. I saw an advertisement the other day on Indian television for a laptop called Ego (really! it was actually called that), its selling point being if you’ve got it, then flaunt it or else be forgotten. That seems to be the recipe for success in these our modern times. Network and kiss air, and if you are smart, smug, smoothly dark and sardonically bearded, you will be able to sell your literature. But if you’re an Austenian ‘Mr Collins’ and not so intellectually aware but still smug, then use Plan B: get on a reality show.
- How Has Facebook Revitalized Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte? (socialtimes.com)
- How Colin Firth’s triumph has fuelled Jane Austen fever (telegraph.co.uk)