The Nation's Pulse

My Summer Vacation With Jane Austen

Did you know Patrick O'Brian was one of her most devoted readers?

By 9.12.07

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Blessed with two extended families, we found ourselves this summer crossing half a continent and back -- from Virginia to northern Wisconsin to South Carolina -- mixing vacation with filial devotion.

The solitude, woods, and lakes of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan contrast sharply, but not unpleasantly, with the lush, sultry Low Country encompassing Charleston, Savannah, Beaufort, and Hilton Head Island.

This summer we felt, acutely, that sense of the sun rising and setting that a family inevitably experiences with the coming of grandchildren and the aging of great grandparents.

It was also the summer of my discontent, given that two of my daughters are Army wives, with spouses heading to Iraq in the coming year. They are married to stand-up guys, one a lawyer and one a surgeon, both officers and gentlemen.

I also struggled with the awareness that the Republican Party, which my family has supported through four generations, was heading for a severe thrashing which, while not exactly deserved, was foreseeable. I found myself spending an inordinate amount of my leisure time fretting about the war, earmarks, deficits, the tsunami (Congressman Mike Pence's term) of entitlements, and a party that has lost its way. Well, at least we have John Roberts on the Supreme Court.

What to do to break through the clouds into the summer's sunshine? I decided to read Jane Austen.

IT WAS WAY PAST TIME for me to do so. As one who went to high school and college in the1960s, I had become a kind of autodidact in terms of reading the Great Books or Classics, the Canon as it were, after graduating from law school. With the great progressive wave which elevated Sergeant Pepper to the level of Mozart, I was deprived of the guidance or encouragement to read what every educated person in this society must, or at least should, read. Since I am inclined towards biography, history, and politics, I just never got around to reading Jane Austen's novels.

Fortunately, there were influences which kept me from forgetting that I should feel ashamed, at my age, for not having read Miss Austen's work. First, my wife's education was sound enough that she had read several of Austen's books. She also has rented every single film version of the novels, mandatory viewing in our home.

Viewer alert: Becoming Jane, the recent Hollywood attempt to concoct a non-existent romance between the real Jane Austen and a lawyer, is indeed a crock. But Anne Hathaway is beautiful and the scenery, homes, and costumes are lovely.

One of my daughters is a true and unabashed "Janeite" who has read everything ever written by or about the great lady. For many, many years, my daughter would instruct me in the fine points of Austen scholarship, the manner in which any given film adaptation did or did not do justice to the writer, and the fine points of her life and the geography of her novels. Unfortunately, this ready source of information caused me to become a kind of "free rider" drawing too easily on the knowledge of my daughter and depriving me of the incentive to read the books themselves.

ANOTHER FACTOR THAT CAUSED my thoughts to return to Austen was my complete absorption into the Aubrey-Maturin novels of the late Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian, of course, is the famous English, not Irish, writer of Royal Navy seafaring stories of the Napoleonic era which, to my mind, transcend the fine tales of C.S. Forester's estimable Hornblower. O'Brian's creations were something like Jane Austen afloat in terms of their perceptive insights into the unique, claustrophobic community on board a British warship as well as English and European society writ large.

These exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship's surgeon, spy, and naturalist, Stephen Maturin, are narrated in 20 novels of which Master and Commander was the very first. They contain relatively few combat narratives (although these are without peer); but they are remarkable portrayals of the routines of life aboard ship, the rigors of war, music, society, culture, cooking, and friendship.

Writing in the New Criterion, Robert Messenger, deputy managing editor of the New York Sun, said:

It is almost a cliche to compare O'Brian and Austen (O'Brian enthusiasts like to point out the similarity between the names JAne AUsten and JAck AUbrey). It is easy to imagine the Bennet girls turning up for a dance, and a chance to meet eligible naval officers, at Aubrey's residences at Melbury Lodge or Ashgrove Cottage, just as it is easy to imagine Maturin visiting an old friend at Lyme Regis and meeting the families from Uppercross Cottage, or Admiral Croft or Captain Wentworth or William Price appearing at one of Aubrey's ports of call. O'Brian wrote up as history what Austen wrote up as life.
"More pertinently, Austen inspired O'Brian's artfully simple writing," claimed Messenger. "Each had a great gift for characterization and for drawing the reader into another world."

Nikolai Tolstoy, O'Brian's stepson and biographer, attributes the writer's enthusiasm for Georgian England and the Regency period, at least in part, to his having "plunged himself into that imagined world by extensive reading in literature of the period." Tolstoy also quotes a 1974 diary entry of Patrick O'Brian:

Complete idleness on my part. I finished Mansfield Park & with it all JA's works -- such a refuge, that comfortable stable world, in spite of its sometimes (I think) false values & cant.
O'Brian was a dedicated collector and reader of antique books and had several first, second, and third editions of Jane Austen's works in his library.

This summer I acquired the Everyman's Library (Knopf) edition of Pride and Prejudice and immersed myself in that supposedly "comfortable stable world" which O'Brian mentioned in his diary. Of course, it is no such thing, as O'Brian understood very well. Austen's world is one of irony, savage satire, calculation, love, beauty, and civility in the face of harsh realities. It is, indeed, full of "false values & cant" but no more than any age. It is, however, blessed with much that is lacking in our own times, specifically humanity, grace, and insight into the ties that bind human beings to one another whether it be a man and a woman in love or society as a whole.

Reading this wonderful book, and following up with Sense and Sensibility, I found myself regretting that, unlike Patrick O'Brian, Jane Austen did not write many novels. I shall try not to worry about that for now but remain satisfied with the sumptuous feast at hand.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.