November 8, 2005

1: Loving Austen

(Here is the first section of the book -- book pieces will always be labeled with numbers. More to come later this week!)

I have always loved Austen. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that I, like so many women, think Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is the ideal man.

I didn’t start reading Austen until I was in college, and picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice at a used book sale somewhere. I still have the copy, the blue-ish-green cover with two desolate watercolor women on the front who look like they belong more to Bronte than to Austen. I read it over Christmas break at my grandparents’ house in Sacramento. I was there alone, waiting for the rest of the family to get in, when we would all drive down to L.A. for my brother’s college graduation.

But before that, I was there with Grammy and Bob, in the simple house his uncle built in the 50’s for $8,000. It still had the green shag carpet then, the green sofas, the lovely yellow kitchen with the gold-patterned sheet vinyl floor that had been there at least twenty years and had brown spots in the crevices that wouldn’t come out. The smells of that house are things my brother and I will always associate with our grandparents. Old-house smells combined with the glories of California – shelves of dusty books, gardenias outside the front door and in a bud vase in the bathroom, where the gentle white flower mingled with something like the faint smell of urine, and sometimes the spray for Grammy’s simply-ironed hair. A single rose in the kitchen windowsill. A bucket of tomatoes from the garden molding on the kitchen counter and ripe canteloupe and peaches from Sloughhouse farmer’s market, down the long dusty roads inbetween fields of corn, soybeans, and strawberries. In the morning, eggs and sausage Bob would mix together in a yolky mess. Bob’s smell lingering on his big recliner, where he sat his 300-plus-pound frame for hours of reading about WWII and crossword puzzles carefully cut out from the paper with scissors that stayed on the end table.

The guest room was the only room where the original hardwood floors hadn’t been covered with shag carpet. It was full of army models Bob no longer worked on, the closet was stuffed with clothes Grammy rarely wore, an old sewing machine stood on the left wall under a high window, holding a 5x7 of Bob when he was young and strong, in his National Guard uniform, the way he was when Grammy fell in love with him. Above that on the wall a picture of Grammy when she was four, with her brothers and sister, in the back yard of their house shortly after they came over from Norway – quiet, sweet Sigrid who died young of tuberculosis, Eric, who became a successful businessman, and Pete, who was full of stories I never heard. He waited tables for a long time at one of the nicest restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf, with customers who came back regularly and got special treatment and left huge tips, until he was hit by a car and could no longer work. Once when we visited him he was living with a woman we called “the bird lady” and there were birds everywhere and bird crap on everything. We think he was gay, though that was never discussed in the family, and he ended up marrying an Asian woman so she could get her green card. He and Grammy fell out of touch in later years, and at some point we concluded that he might be homeless. I used to think about going out to San Francisco to try to find my Uncle Pete, living on the streets somewhere, calling Grammy when he was drunk so she got annoyed with him. I used to think I would find him and help him somehow, but I barely knew him so I never went. One of his friends sent Grammy all of his few possessions after he died, and the pictures revealed a shrunken, thin man with white hair and beard, a shopping cart, and a red nylon jacket, smiling.

In later years, Grammy would turn up the heat at night until it was stifling, and Bob would end up in a wheelchair, unable to maneuver. Grammy and I would come back to the house to horrible excretory smells because Bob had trouble making it to the bathroom alone. The laundry sat dirty in the bathtub and Grammy sometimes forgot to change clothes. I couldn’t stay with them then, but on this trip, they were still young-old, and I was sleeping on the Murphy bed in the guest room, staying up late after they went to bed, smelling the comforting old-house smells and reading Pride & Prejudice, greedily turning pages, awash in the glory of unexpected love.

I was in full-on crush mode at the time, the kind of simple crush, perhaps, that can only strike an evangelical college girl at twenty when she still has yet to be kissed. This particular crush had Austenian themes, in that, like Elizabeth with Darcy, I wasn’t attracted to the guy at first, until I got to know his character and figured out what a great guy he was and suddenly he became terribly attractive to me.

So I followed Elizabeth and Darcy, dreamt of my own unlikely romance, and fell in love with Austen.

Jane Austen’s books (and the movies based on them) are the entertainment equivalent of comfort food – what I have returned to over and over again when I’ve needed a break from the real world, when I’ve needed to retreat. I’ve watched and read them so many times. Once, flat on my back with a four-month-long exhaustion that my doctors could only describe as “a mono-like virus,” I pulled out my VHS copy of the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, only to find that I had worn out the pictures and was left with only sound. I watched five hours of grey static that time, listening to the voices and music, imagining the scenes in my head.

I began to feel like I had nowhere left to go. I knew the plot lines of Austen’s books and was familiar with the corners of her fictional world. But I knew little about her life. I wanted to know the stories that made her who she was, the things she never wrote about, the characters in her family and friends, her navy brothers.

I read Carol Shields’ biography, and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life. I was thrilled to find Austen’s own sarcastic and at times caustic voice in Dierdre LeFaye’s collection of her letters. I read her brother Henry’s biographical sketch about the sister from whose pen "everything came finished" and her nephew’s glowing memoir about the aunt who was never, in his mind, so close to romantic love as to be touched by it.

I wanted to see the old Norman-era church in Steventon where her father had been rector all those years, the yew tree where they used to hide the key, the site of the rectory with the hill Jane rolled down as a child, like Catherine in Northanger Abbey. Lovely Bath, where Jane stopped writing for so many years. The Cobb at Lyme, the houses in Derbyshire she may have based Pemberley on, her brother’s huge estates, the small cottage in Chawton where she sat to write in the room with the squeaky door so she could put her work away quickly if anyone disturbed her.

And that is how I found myself in the middle of a wheat field in the Hampshire countryside, alone and nearly lost, on a sunny day in mid-July.


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