Last Friday, I made (okay, forced) my class to watch the Kiera Knightly/Matthew Macfadyen version of “Pride and Prejudice” directed by Joe Wright. I’m a big fan of Austen; Pride and Prejudice is probably my favorite novel ever. I just recently finished re-reading it (again). You cannot make someone love the layers and dialogue and magnificence of Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Bennett, and the wicked Mr. Wickham, but you can show students in an Interpersonal Communications class just how the verbal communication, along with the non-verbal communication, work to create and embellish these characters and make them memorable. I love this film (as I do the Colin Firth version, which is much longer and not appropriate for a three-week long, intensive May-term class), and I dare say, I think a few of my students may have taken a strong liking to it as well.
Below is my own personal tribute, in fiction form, to the wonderful, great, inspirational, witty, charming, enduring Jane Austen.
I’d finished writing the last chapter at three in the morning. My eyes were puffy and swollen from the concentration, the overall lack of sleep, and the fact that I probably needed to have the prescription for my contacts adjusted. I started the book when Michael left me. It was a year’s labor and a sense of accomplishment engulfed me. I moved over and sat at my makeup table to further examine myself, staring intently into the mirror in the dark of the room. I didn’t really need to examine myself that closely; I knew I had dark circles under my eyes, and I removed each contact lens carefully and placed each into the case. I felt worn out, which should not be for a woman in her thirties.
I grabbed the makeup remover, wiped one eye, then the next, freeing them of crusty mascara. It was then I saw her, her reflection in the mirror. I turned abruptly to face her.
“Your book is lovely,” she said to me, moving about in her empire-waist long dress, smelling of lilacs, her loosely curled hair falling around her face. I recognized her immediately, and without fear or intimidation. She looked remarkably like the portraits I had seen of her. “There is plenty of melancholy in the world. Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,”* she said.
I stood to face her, partially in disbelief, and partially thrilled to have her here. I reached for her hand to shake it, as she had hers outstretched to mine. Her hand was warm, not cold like one would imagine a ghost’s hand feeling. In fact, she looked not at all like a ghost, but instead like a friend standing before me in a costume. She smiled.
“Is it you? Jane Austen?” I asked.
She nodded, smiled, and raised her eyebrows in wonderment at me. “Ah, but we are old friends, indeed!”
“But, of course! You have been reading my manuscripts, and I, in turn, have been reading yours. I particularly liked your last work. I delighted in your characters’ romantic, spirited romps. So wonderful!” She sat in the small chair adjacent to the picture window, her perfect posture elongating her elegant neck, as she looked out across the city. The glow of the city’s lights danced in her hazel eyes full of amazement. I was accustomed to working in the dark, with only my computer screen and a night-light illuminating the room.
“I wish there had been large cities and these very tall buildings in my day. It’s almost like you can touch the sky,” she said, arms reaching toward the ceiling. “I would have relished ubiquitous culture and arts in such a place! I am not so sure, however, about that strange honking noise from below. Does it not disturb you whilst you write?”
“I suppose one gets used to it,” I said.
Her beautiful British accent made my New York tongue seem unpolished, hard. I tried to disguise it when I spoke. “May I ask what you are doing here, Ms. Austen, in my dark, messy apartment at three in the morning?”
“You, dear friend. I am here as a means of encouragement.”
I rubbed my eyes and offered her a glass of water, which she accepted. She stood to face me.
“Encouragement?” I asked. “With regard to writing?”
“With regard to writing and life, my dear girl. One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.”*
She moved over to my laptop and pointed to it, the last line of my novel present on the screen. “This is witty, here. And your life is grand. Do not be troubled by a lack of love right now. For in time, your heart will be full of it!”
She stared at the cursor and shook her right hand out. “So much easier, this machine, than writing it all out in longhand,” she said. “This one tended to cramp up quite a bit. Is it easier to edit yourself?”
“It’s never easy,” I said. She walked back toward the window and took one last glance outside. “Must be off now,” she said, and she reached for me. I felt a breeze, and then the room went dark.
In the morning, when I awakened to the warmth of the sun streaming through my windows, the heat of its rays on my face, still fully clothed on top of my bedspread, my glasses by my side, I wasn’t sure what had happened; the last line of my novel was still displayed on my computer screen and the room smelled of lilacs.
**This piece of fiction includes two quotes from Jane Austen
copyright Stephanie Verni