I do not want People to be very agreable [sic], as it saves me the trouble
of liking them a great deal.
—Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra
It’s actually an uncomfortable thing to pursue one’s dreams, however attractive they may sound. Perhaps this is why most of us only dream dreams and never live them. For several years I have tried to err on the side of taking risks to live the life I want, to do the thingsI feel must be done. But there is a creeping, stealthy anxiety that has wound itself around me in such a way that I cannot escape, even here.
So here I am, alternately anxious and pinch-myself-I-must-be-dreaming thrilled.
I am wearing ugly hiking shoes and have decided I don’t want to go to England, which wouldn’t be such a problem if I wasn’t at fortyone thousand feet somewhere south of Greenland, headed into a month of following Jane Austen’s life through the country. Also, I’m in a mood for falling in love, which is its own kind of malady. Meeting loads of interesting people—one of the initial attractions of this trip—now seems painful, and I’m sure I would be far more comfortable at home with a good thick book, and I’m sure Jane would agree. Jane did not like to be forced out of her familiar circle either. Perhaps the people I meet will not be terribly nice or intelligent to save me the trouble of liking them much.
If I could manage to fall in love without having to actually meet someone, that would be ideal.
My friend Kristine talks about “crowded rooms,” as in “one day you spot a stranger across a crowded room” and everything changes, and I think the Oxford classroom I’m headed for may be crowded in that sense of the word.
And part of me believes in the mystical and mysterious—and wacky—just enough to think that, because I’m an Austen devotee following in her steps, perhaps she will deign to craft a little romantic comedy of my own, in real life, from beyond the grave (which seems absolutely ridiculous on paper, but there it is). Funny that these little thoughts we barely acknowledge become hopes or beliefs.
Plus, I suppose, as a single woman there is always the expectation that if you are going to meet someone (not that you have to, but if you are going to, and it seems right somehow to imagine this happening in your life), it should be now, because time is getting on and all and now we are thirty-three (and who could have ever imagined that we would be thirty-three and single?).
Of course, my friends were glad to help me ponder the possibility of a whirlwind British summer romance while acknowledging that it would be completely unnecessary to the outcome of the trip—but wouldn’t it be fabulous, if, you know, you never know when you might meet someone, and I am going to be in England after all—home of Colin Firth in all his shirt-dripping glory. (Except thanks to Bridget Jones we now know that Colin Firth actually lives in Italy, for all his traipsing about the English countryside in movies.)
Actually, the Austen story may have begun with an Oxford romance. It’s thought that this is where Jane’s parents first met.1 George Austen, around thirty, was finishing a divinity degree at St. John’s and working there as assistant chaplain. Cassandra Leigh visited her uncle Theophilus in Oxford from time to time. Cassandra may have known George the way everyone else did, as “the Handsome Proctor.”2 And Cassandra’s wit and beauty must have gotten his attention.
What we know for sure is that George and Cassandra Austen married in Bath shortly after Cassandra’s father died3 and seemed to have loved each other deeply. Neither had much money. Their eight children (they never adopted the regularly used birth control of separate bedrooms) and bustling home were a reversal of fortune of sorts for George and must have been a great comfort to him. He had been orphaned as a small boy and then kicked out of his father’s house by his stepmother, eventually taken in by an aunt until he landed with a scholarship in Oxford.4
Generations of Austen men followed George to study in Oxford— two of Jane’s brothers and several nephews—preparing for taking orders in the church, which was kind of a family tradition. (One of Jane’s nephews even proceeded to take orders although his wealthy great-aunt had threatened to disinherit him—just one of the signs that the Austens were earnest and sincere in an age in which the church itself was largely corrupt.5) I will be there for a week-long theology summer school and then traveling through southern England for three more weeks.
Oxford is not the first place people think of in connection with Austen—the Hampshire countryside or Bath readily come to mind— but if Oxford is where George and Cassandra Austen fell in love, perhaps in some ways it is the best place to start.
So I am dreaming of romance and trying to expect nothing and afraid of it all the same. My suitcase weighs forty pounds (including roughly twelve pounds of books), my backpack another twenty (ten pounds of shampoo?). Roughly two hours’ sleep last night. Bad hair day. Hoping I do not get a blood clot and die of DVT or collapse from hunger and starvation. It’s a difficult, romantic thing to be a dreamer.
I’ve always felt a kinship with Jane (and the biographers tell me I should always call her Jane Austen or Austen but never Jane, which is far too familiar)—a closeness many of her readers wrongly assume. She feels like a dear friend. Could we meet her, though, she would no doubt find the ridiculous in us, wherever it lurks. And whether intensely private Jane would want to talk to any of us is up for question.
People ask, “Why? Is it the romance?” The truth is, I don’t know exactly. There are all kinds of reasons. And, yes, it is the romance (but only partly, she says with great pride). Poor, intelligent women. Rich, full-charactered men. Happy endings.
In some ways, this trip is about sorting out the possibilities of my life, working and dreaming to ensure that sans husband and children, I will still somehow be significant. Oxford, grad school, studying theology— these are things I have dreamed about as an avenue to meaning, an answer to the unexpected aloneness of my journey. In this feminist age, it is slightly annoying that it still at some level comes down to that, to being alone and wishing I were not, to wondering a little now and then what to do with myself.
So, yes, I love Jane in no small part because I love Darcy and Knightley and Wentworth. But there is so much more to Austen. (There is so much more to me, as well. For example, I happen to be poor and intelligent.)
Austen’s writing is full of wit and energy; she is ready to find and laugh at anything ridiculous. C. S. Lewis wrote of her “cheerful moderation.” 6 G. K. Chesterton, in the introduction to a 1922 edition of Love and Freindship [sic], one of Jane’s juvenile stories, wrote:
These pages betray her secret; which is that she was naturally exuberant…her original passion was a sort of joyous scorn and a fighting spirit against all that she regarded as morbid and lax and poisonously silly.7
In the midst of her light stories, Austen seems to have captured some essential, unspoken truths about who we are and why we do what we do. Hers are characters in the truest sense of the word, in that their motives and desires are exposed, moral victories and failures on display. No thought or action is too small for Jane to relate if it will help us accurately make out a character’s, well, character. I am curious about her faith, which evidences itself in a gentle way in her writing. And I wonder about the difference between her books, with their sweet romances, and her life, in which she was disappointed in love and widely regarded to have rushed herself into middle age.8
Ironically, though now unbelievably popular, Jane lived a small life. She wasn’t so much hemmed in by her Hampshire countryside and family and steady group of friends as she was at home in her quiet routines, her thriving simplicity. I don’t know when the suspicion began for me, but for a while I’ve had a growing fear that my own life is small, when I crave bigness. I would like to make a grand contribution to the world to justify my existence and help define me. What thrilled Jane makes me panic. I don’t want to be small. I want to be incredibly, unbelievably significant. (And yet could anyone accuse Jane of being insignificant?) I know that part of that is good and spiritual— this desire for a life not to be wasted—and yet it seems a great stroke of pride.
I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.
In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air. (Which, of course, is a great oversimplification of the time in which she lived. Nonetheless, that is what we find.)
And that is part of my hope for this trip. Or rather, I have already begun to reinvent my life, and this trip is part of that.
I suppose I should say that for all the laughing and half-serious musings about whether or how Austen might manifest herself on this trip, there is another, bigger part of me that is consumed with trying to manage my anxiety.
I sit here on the plane as an escapee of depression. When depression has followed you for a while, when you have begun to leave it behind, it’s difficult not to feel that it may still be stalking, may pounce again at any inopportune moment.
A year ago, in the middle of the workday, I started to cry uncontrollably and had to leave the office, realizing with sudden clarity that I was in an emotional pit, that the depression that had been mildly following me for a few years was now nearly complete and all-encompassing.
As my brother would say, when you find yourself in the middle of a catastrophe, it’s likely because there’s been failure on multiple fronts, and that was the story of my depression. Over several years there had been spectacular tragedies and slow deaths, things I thought I had assimilated. There were multiple fault lines running through my life, encouraged by an overwhelming, numbing exhaustion. I could no longer hold all the pieces together enough to make it feel mostly good.
It was mostly very bad, with a dead end–ish, hopeless cast.
It all started, I think, on Labor Day several years ago. I was nursing what I thought was a cold, only to end up in the emergency room at 3:00 a.m., bizarrely unable to swallow even my own spit my throat hurt so badly. (I still felt like a wimp showing up at the emergency room check-in saying, “My throat hurts.”) They gave me Tylenol with codeine that I could barely get down and a thick numbing gel to swallow, which made me throw up. I went home and rested and saw my doctor but didn’t get better—for months I was exhausted, with a lowgrade fever, attempting to work part-time but mostly not able to work.
The dishes piled up all over the kitchen counters; the laundry was too large a task to comprehend. This was that mono-like virus. The doctors couldn’t diagnose the exact strain but assured me that although it might take me six months to get back to work, I wouldn’t be permanently impaired. I am afraid they might have been wrong.
I went back to work full time after four months. The fatigue lingered in spite of my determination to will it away. I developed lifealtering insomnia. If I was able to get to sleep, chances were I would wake up and feel as though I hadn’t slept at all, as though my body refused to rest. I walked about semicatatonic, attempting to suppress my out-of-control emotions, trying to go through the challenging daily rituals—getting up in the morning, getting dressed, getting to work on time (a near impossibility), doing something productive, making dinner.
Batteries of tests showed nothing substantive that could be causing the problem, so exhausted me tried futilely to get more sleep, to go to dance class with my lethargic muscles. I was ever hopeful that things would once again be normal but forgetting what normal felt like. Work haunted me; there were days I drove to work in tears. It’s a familiar, soul-killing story. I was given responsibility without authority, held accountable for things I had no control over. I had to deal with aggressive co-workers whose superiors washed their hands of the situation.
In this case, the organization was a large Christian nonprofit, and the mismanagement was all in the name of God—which to me was devastatingly sad. Before that had been the self-absorbed, near-compulsiveliar boss who slandered my reputation as he shoved me out—also, of course, a Christian. I knew in my head that none of these was entirely or even largely my fault, but I was contaminated with insecurity.
It had been years since I’d felt at home in a church—since my family group, the Bible study group that I worshiped with and backpacked through Grand Canyon and Glacier with, had fallen apart. None of us was comfortable anymore in our church, the church I grew up in. We still firmly believed but had developed a distaste for the trappings that came with faith—the obligatory political conservatism, the focus on church involvement over engaging the world, the guilt trips, the failure to understand or appreciate artistic approaches to truth. We called ourselves “The Inquisitors” after the Dostoevsky story that was one of the first our reading group tackled and because we were all about asking questions. In retrospect, the name was ironically apt. We judged the church harshly and went in search of new ways to express our faith and, in the process, bickered and lost each other.
I felt unmoored. I found a new church. I went to a singles’ Bible study with dreadfully long hours of teaching. I continued to go on Sundays because my faith—my relationship with God—was incredibly important to me, but I felt like I couldn’t relate to most of the people there and wondered if they could understand me—sad, struggling to believe.
I longed for a life outside the stuffy, often sickly sweet, and sometimes nonintellectual spirituality of the evangelical Christian world. I hated that I had gone to a Christian college, worked for Christian organizations. I began to feel that any group of professional Christians would provide unexpectedly stellar examples of incompetence and, at times, pure meanness. I wanted out. I desperately wanted to go back and rewrite my life—to go to a state school, get a master’s degree, study abroad, survive in the “real” world.
I had not married. As a somewhat conflicted semifeminist, I had dreamed of and planned for and wanted marriage since I was a lanky, brown-skinned girl winning faux beauty contests at friends’ birthday parties. I ached for the meaning and compassion a husband would provide, for the chance to make my own family.
Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air. If nothing else, I knew I could be brave. I went to counseling. I gave myself permission to feel the badness of it all. I reached out to friends. I learned things about myself that I didn’t want to know—that I could be passive-aggressive (when you try to stuff away your emotions, they have a way of leaking out elsewhere), that I was holding other people responsible for my emotional well-being. I decided to give myself grace and determined to change.
I went to a specialist, who found a thyroid imbalance that had been kicked off by the virus four years before. He gave me a prescription, and very slowly I began to feel better. I got more rest and had fewer lost days. I saved thousands of dollars and determined to leave my job and write for a year, to see if I could make it. I started going to an Anglican church that I love. I started to date again—a blind date, a guy I asked out, a guy I asked out because he wouldn’t stop talking (always a bad sign), a friend who flew up from Atlanta. I was out of my comfort zone in so many ways, forcing myself to engage with the world again, to try. Within six months, if not a new person, I had at least worked my way into a new perspective on life, with hope and possibilities, with a more independent me I rather liked.
In January I gave my notice. In February I walked away from meetings and coffee breaks and lunch breaks and paid vacation and health insurance to the gloriously terrifying world of writing full time. I felt like the jasmine plant in my sunroom that nearly died from lack of water and then sprouted blossoms on dead-looking branches.
There I sat, blooming—having willed my way into a new life, having stepped off the cliff into freelance hell only to find it daunting but very, very good. I was still terrified. But I loved life. Like blossoms that were completely unexpected.