I’ve always considered myself well-read, but up until a few years ago had never read any Jane Austen. (Am I allowed to admit that? Should I also tell you I’ve never read beyond the first [wonderful] Harry Potter, much to my sons’ disappointment?)
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve read four of Jane’s books. (We share a birthday, even. That’s why we’re on a first-name basis. How could I have waited this long?) While I enjoy and admire her writing, I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan. I am, though, really intrigued by her commentary on society and human nature in particular. Her books, with plots propelled by misunderstanding, feel like an honest reflection of how we often function in relationships, whether we realize it or not.
My book club read Emma at the close of 2020, and one of my biggest takeaways was the character Mr. Woodhouse. Emma’s father is (delightfully? maddeningly?) set in his ways. He has strong feelings about guests and marriage and doctors and digestion. In fact, he is so convinced of the evils of rich wedding cake that he tries to talk other guests into forgoing a piece. Jane Austen says of Mr. Woodhouse “he could never believe other people to be different from himself.” The line is a humorous aside because we, as readers, see his folly.
Of course we’re all different. But do we behave as if we know this? Sometimes? Rarely? Maybe never? What a profound observation Jane Austen has made in just a few short words!
How often do we (meaning I) assume people see the world the way we do and then become frustrated or confused or dismayed when we realize they don’t, even when we should know better? How easy is it to think we’re being generous and open in our approach to others, only to realize what we really expect of them is what we would do — the metaphorical avoidance of the wedding cake?
Austen’s tone is light and humorous, but the observation is spot on.
I’m curious about your own takeaways from characters you’ve encountered and would love if you’d share with readers here.