On Jane Austen and Imagination
Updated: Oct 21
I am a fan of what I call extreme literature, by which I mean going to places which are significant to particular writers and reading from their works at those places. This activity has seen me reading The Old Man and the Sea at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, The Raven at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore, The Declaration of Independence at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in front of Truman Capote’s house in Brooklyn - just to name a few.
This activity found me some twenty years ago making a kind of pilgrimage to Winchester Cathedral. The Cathedral is beautiful and well worth a visit, but the aim of that particular trip was not to drink in the wonders of the architecture (which is stunning indeed) but to visit the burial place of my literary heroine, the absolute queen of English literature whom I am unashamed to say that I adore with an intensity that borders on worship: Jane Austen. O how my very heart swells within me when I am able to have access to her delightful prose! O how vexing is the day when I possess too little time to delve into even a few of her most pleasing lines! And there, in Winchester Cathedral, armed with Persuasion, I was going to be able to sit and read her marvellous words at her final resting place! Nothing could ruin this!
Or so I thought. Because as I sat there, lost in the world of Anne Elliott and her Captain Wentworth, a tour guide who looked to be all of about fifteen years old began speaking in less than stellar terms - with a bored tone, to add to the ignominy - about my dear Jane! I daren’t go into the drivel which spouted forth from his ill-informed lips lest my blood pressure rise anew, but the proverbial straw which fractured the cameli dorsum was when he painted Jane to be a poseur, a fraud, a hopeless spinster who wrote shallow stories about shallow romance because she knew not the depths of real romance in her own sad life.
This would not stand! Like Colonel Brandon before that scoundrel Willoughby I felt that honour and decency needed to be defended. I placed my bookmark in Persuasion with the reverence of a monk at matins, and leapt to my feet to challenge the pimply-faced nebbish.
“Pardon me,” I said, when he had paused for questions, “I am curious to know two things: firstly, what exactly do you find shallow about Miss Austen’s work and, secondly, what are your qualifications for making such an assessment?”
The group the lad was leading - mostly kind-faced senior citizens - turned and looked at me, perhaps confused because I had not been a part of their group before and they wondered where I had come from. But I could see on their faces that they had given the whole matter a few seconds of thought and were clearly on my side. One woman who was possessed of both the imperiousness and girth of Queen Victoria in her later days, turned to the boy and, when he did not answer, said, “Well?”
The boy tried to backtrack a little bit, obviously sensing that he had lost the crowd and the duel was not going as he had hoped, but he stood by his assertion that Jane Austen didn’t have a clue about real love, and that if it weren’t for Colin Firth and Emma Thompson and the love of both the BBC and Hollywood for the Empire waistline, Jane would not be as popular as she was. I had to grant that the second part of his premise was true; who doesn’t love a good costume drama played out in lush hues on the silver screen? But Jane Austen not knowing anything about love? Was he jesting?
“We need to move on now,” he said to the group that by that point was a little less enamoured with their leader than they had been previously. The Queen Victoria look-alike hung back, coming up to me. She shot a we-are-not-amused glance in the hapless tour guide’s direction. “That,” she said with the full weight of history seemingly surrounding her, “is the problem with the world today: people lack imagination.” She then glanced in the direction of our Jane. “She had imagination.” And with that she marched off and I resisted the urge to bow to her. Instead I opened up my book once again, awestruck as ever at the craft of one who had the ability to transform imagination into reality.
Our Sunday Gospel readings in these weeks are a collection of some of the well-loved parables of Jesus from Saint Matthew. And there is always the danger when confronted with familiar and even memorised texts, to ease into a kind of comfort with them which ultimately lessens their full impact. We hear of seeds and sowers and think how nice and lovely the images are, how utterly sensible. And they are lovely, as they are sensible.
But what they are more than that is imaginative. Relating the immensity of the Kingdom of God, its effect on the history of the very universe, its presence both in the vastness of our world and the intimacy of our hearts shows the presence of an imagination which can be described in no other way than as divine. There is no limit to the wonders of the Kingdom which is all around us and which is also still yet to come, and should we ever become complacent or discouraged, should we ever begin to doubt what effects our lives can have as we journey to the Kingdom, we need only think of the imaginative stories of Jesus, of seeds and sowers, of fine pearls and fishing nets, and be encouraged to imagine what possibilities exist in the immensity and intimacy of life in our God. They really are limitless - the possibilities - if we are open to the creative Spirit within us and dare to be people of imagination. We can witness to the possibility of a world of peace, understanding and love even if we have, at times, sadly been mired in conflict, judgement, and hatred. We just need to imagine it, and the whole Kingdom will open before us like a cherished book whose words continue to speak to us in countless and unforeseen ways.
Before leaving Winchester Cathedral all those years ago, I began feeling a bit sorry for that young tour guide, as I wasn’t even a part of his tour and I basically hijacked it and turned his charges somewhat against him. So I wrote a note in which I apologised for my challenging him when all he was really doing was stating an opinion. But, I continued, I encouraged him to re-think the concept that someone like Jane Austen could not really write about romance just because she, personally, had perhaps not experienced it in the typical way that many have. I finished by copying out lines from Persuasion and invited him to reflect on the power of love present therein: You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.
I left the note at the information desk. I have no idea if the intended recipient ever read it, and, if he did, whether he was moved or not. But I’ve certainly imagined that he was. I’ve imagined that he went on to study English Literature and now teaches other young men and women to open their minds to possibility, to expand their creative vision. I’ve imagined that he writes in his spare time and has finished a novel in which an awareness of an entire world far grander then his own unfolds at an exponential rate and changes everyone in it. I’ve even imagined his name - Fitzwilliam - although his colleagues call him William and his wife Fitz. I’ve imagined that he has four children: a son (George), and three daughters (Elinor, Elizabeth and - of course - Jane).
Now I know it may seem silly, all of this imagining, but I most certainly have engaged in sillier activities so I am obviously not too vexed by being considered silly. I think it’s good exercise, this imagining, and can ultimately help me better wrap my head and heart around some wondrously imaginative images such as seeds and sowers, fine pearls and fishing nets. “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight,” Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, and - especially for Christians - I find it a most sage counsel indeed.