It seems that Jane Austen was always in my house. My father, now retired, was an English Professor at Wake Forest University for the first forty years of my life, and his specialty was the eighteenth century. True, Jane Austen’s novels were not published until the early nineteenth century, but her work was very much a part of his syllabus and he often talked about her.
In seventh grade, I made the rather impetuous decision that I should be reading more “grown up” books in my spare time. I can remember reading Brave New World (which seemed pretty salacious to a seventh grader who didn’t know the world salacious) and then I moved on to Pride and Prejudice. Now I can’t tell you exactly who Jane Austen’s imagined audience for Pride and Prejudice was, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t seventh grade American boys of the 1970s. To me, it was nothing more than a soap opera. How could my dad spend all his time with this stuff? Sadly, I let this impression of Austen guide me for the next couple of decades.
I was probably in my thirties when I picked up Pride and Prejudice and gave it a second chance. The first thing that surprised me was that it was funny—really funny. I regretted having spent so long laboring under my seventh grade misconceptions, and since then I have read Austen frequently and with much enjoyment. While I would not describe myself as an Austen fanatic I have enjoyed all her novels (I re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in preparation for writing First Impressions, and read Northanger Abbey for the first time).
The most bizarre Jane Austen experience I ever had came on the streets of London when I met my first Austen fan-girls (a.k.a. Janeites). My wife and I had seen Jennifer Ehle (who played Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice) in The Philadelphia Story and we were waiting to say hello to her at the stage door. Jennifer grew up a few blocks from me and attended the same elementary and middle school. She was in my brother’s class and they were close friends for several years. At the stage door, I suddenly realized we were in a crowd of (mostly American) college-aged women who wanted Elizabeth Bennet’s autograph—and this was at least a decade after the miniseries. Behold the power of Jane Austen! (BTW Jennifer was very gracious to us and we had a lovely chat about our old school and favorite teachers.)
And now here I am, on the brink of launching a new novel into the world—a novel in which Jane Austen is one of the main characters. I have a feeling that once First Impressions is out in the world, I can be sure that Jane Austen will stay in my house!