Undoing the stitches of aesthetics with Jane Austen

SHADYA NAHER SHEYAM | Thursday, 9 September 2021

Insights about English novelist Jane Austen are not alike. Some admire her, while others despise her; some believe she is the essence of feminism’s anthem, while others believe she is the embodiment of everything feminism set out to combat.

A sociological understanding of the Regency era is sought after by other readers of her novels. And then there are readers, whose souls are bewitched by her works — solely for the aesthetic qualities.

Most people prefer to think of her books as escapist in nature — they enjoy the breather she provides from the never-ending eternal tedium of daily existence. A warm coffee mug steam could make any of her readers hop on to the train of her characters' world. Slowly, a portal opens up to welcome the readers to Austenland.

The portal of Austenland offers readers to step inside. The crumbling cottage in Sense and Sensibility, which the Dashwoods are forced to occupy after being exiled, welcomes them. The honeysuckle-framed cottage makes us feel cosy on a cold, rainy day with its sizzling fire.

A sculpture of Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, Willoughby, transports readers back in time to peep into the past and enables them to stroll through Longbourn until they greet the Bennett sisters. Their compassion showers readers with the kind of closeness that readers long for when leaving home for the first time.

Being dolled up in graceful puff-sleeved gowns and plumes and descending from a Mr Darcy chaperoned carriage splashes colours of elegance on readers’ mind canvas. Despite the fact that Austen's ballrooms are thriving with life, one’s inability to dance could pose a hindrance to the enjoyment of the festivities. So they could drag their two feet into a corner and watch others gulp their beverages and have a good time while plotting their departure from Longbourn to Bath.

There, they end up stumbling upon Catherine Morland, who has come to Bath to become a lady. Watching Mr Tilney from Northanger Abbey making his approach towards Catherine at a dance party makes someone wonder when their own Mr Tinley would walk up to them amidst a gorgeous and crowded ballroom.

The rattling doors and windows, the ominous silence in the lonely library – it all contributes to the creation of a gothic atmosphere in the room. When the puzzle eventually reveals, the shadows from every corner and crevice of the Abbey sprinkled onto the pages make readers desperate to get out and away from the nightmares of this place.

Returning to Bath, readers discover Anne Eliott, the female protagonist of Persuasion, who gives them food for thought on why it is such a prominent vacation spot for Austen. Their stay gets prolonged once they realise Anne is there on a more long-term basis. Noticing the abandonment of buttered bread and her twirling in the seat, clearly anxious by the thought of seeing her old flame Captain Wentworth at breakfast, makes readers' share of agitation brew.

It becomes unavoidable for them to dine with the same group of people from that point forward.When the air becomes unpleasant, even readers lose their appetite for the delicious delicacies of roasts and cutlets and it becomes only a matter of time before the discomfort drives the lovers closer together and then into a wedding.

As one wedding leads to another, readers could, meanwhile, accept Emma's invitation to Highbury to attend the wedding of her governess along the way. The feast becomes the hot topic all over the neighbourhood and not a single bite of the wedding cake remains.

Readers could also become a guest at a dinner party hosted by Mr Woodhouse where they could witness him refilling the wine glasses of his guests and helping everyone to the custard and tarts. Being accustomed to getting together at Highbury is so frequent that one can’t say no to Mr Knightley's invitation to picnic. After Emma has made a snide remark about Miss Bates, his sandwiches and strawberries appear to be stale.

Emma could easily take the place of Fanny Price's cruel cousins Maria or Julia from Mansfield Park at that moment. But she doesn't. In many ways, Fanny represents the ideal of what a Regency woman should be — deprived of any discernible voice and demure.

However, to a reader from the twenty-first century, it may not translate in that way. One could be in no way sympathetic to the Bertrams or Crawfords, but when Sir Thomas refuses to grant them permission to stage a play, it would do more than dampen their celebration and this leave readers feeling disappointed.

Fanny, on the other hand, refuses to allow the play to be performed in any case – which makes her wish come true. And when readers do not have it, they jump to the conclusion that the permutations and combinations of Fanny’s moral code are a tad too rigid for their preferences.

Readers could also imagine here receiving a troubling letter from Lady Susan, who expresses a desire to see her brother in Churchill while leaving Mansfield. They could also stay there, and by accompanying her, they could find out she is not the wronged victim, which they assumed when they first met her.

She is described as "the most accomplished coquette in England" by Mr De Courcy, and she is the polar opposite of poor Fanny – a cunning flirt who has every man in the community eating out of her hand. She is unlike any of Austen's other heroines in that she defies all moral compasses.

And then, unexpectedly, the visit to Austenland comes to an end with the unpreparedness for the end of the Austen odyssey. This leaves the audience desiring more — just one more vibrant colour palette of the wedding ceremony, one more elegant carriage ride and one more strolling on the hills.

Even though the long escape finally comes to a close, all the moments that readers experience throughout Austen's works do not end with this, they stay with them being etched in their hearts, forever.

The writer is a student of international relations at the Bangladesh University of Professionals. [email protected]