As I write this, the UK has been plunged into a second lockdown because of Covid-19. By the time you read this post, we will hopefully have come out of it and be beginning to resume going out more, seeing more people and generally getting back to some kind of normality.
This year has been one of upheaval for pretty much everyone. It’s been a tough year for many people and there’s so much uncertainty in the world. Now more than ever we don’t know what the future will bring. I’ve found it such a great help during this unsettling, often upsetting period we’re living in to immerse myself in reading novels.
Jane Austen’s novels in particular are a real form of escapism. They don’t just take us back to a time before we were having to wear masks, or socially distance, but to another time in history altogether. One of the things that’s so interesting about Austen’s novels is how they portray a – to us – bucolic, idyllic setting mostly in more rural areas of Regency England, at a time in Britain’s history that was anything but calm.
For most of Austen’s life, Britain was at war with France. The French Revolution had begun not that long before she was born and there was instability and trouble in much of mainland Europe. For some time Britain lived in constant fear of being invaded by the French, led by Napoleon, so it was a difficult era in Britain’s history. Many people in Britain would have been scared about a French invasion. In fact, the term ‘bogeyman’ comes from this era when Napoleon Bonaparte was referred to by the British as ‘Boney’, which then became ‘bogey’ or ‘bogeyman’.
And yet in Austen’s novels themselves, we don’t see any of this. While her novels are not without conflict – think of the sparks that fly between Darcy and Elizabeth – she chooses not to focus on the political conflict going on across the English Channel. Instead she focuses on young women and their search for happiness and love. For us reading them today, we can become happily lost in a world that seems simpler than our own.
It’s one where people are (generally) polite to one another, where gentlemen are courteous to ladies, in settings that are mostly rural in an era before cars and many densely populated cities. The values of society in the Regency era are also so different from our own and yet the people are not. They love like we do, they have disappointments like we do and they are forced to examine their own behaviour at times, as we often are. So we can sympathise with heroines like Marianne Dashwood, suffering from a broken heart or neglected like Fanny Price.
I think reading fiction in general helps us to forget our own circumstances and focus on the trials and tribulations of the characters we’re reading about instead of our own. To me, Jane Austen is a past master at drawing us into her world. Although it’s obviously set in a real era in history, the novels are of course fiction and in them she’s created these marvellous characters and stories that stay in our minds long after we’ve finished reading them.
Her wonderful writing draws us back to her novels time and again. Whatever situation we may be in right now, it is possible to find great comfort in reading or rereading Austen’s novels.