Monday, January 21, 2008

An Inkling for Jane Austen-Part II

I caught up with Lori Smith to talk with her about life, Jane Austen and her own journey. Here's more of our conversation.

You described yourself as a “somewhat conflicted feminist” (p 15) and as I’ve grappled with an appropriate term for myself in my own writings, I’d love it if you could share some of the semi-feminist view of Jane Austen.

Austen is so interesting to me in that regard. She wasn’t really fighting against the strictures of the day (although some critics see that in her writing), but she believed wholeheartedly in the value of women and the value of a woman’s intelligence. She believed that a woman could be foolish or wise and competent, whether she had little education or much, and that a man with a wife who could converse with him or even challenge him (as with Elizabeth and Darcy) would be richer for it. She taught that women were worth more than their financial status may suggest.

I loved your sections on physical beauty, how you felt that even though you are thin you will always be a “fat little skinny girl” in a bikini. I appreciated your insight and honesty into the betrayal (of ourselves, of our bodies, of our opportunities) when we succumb to cosmetic plastic surgery. In owning the body you have, how have you learned to be, like Jane Austen, content with not being the “prettiest girl in the room”?

I think (at thirty-something) I’m beginning to cherish the me that I am, instead of always berating it. I wrote that section somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing it’s so ridiculous, the amount of emphasis we put on our bodies and making them perfect. But every woman today struggles with that, right? The images we see are flawless, and unattainable. For me, writing is a kind of therapy, and it really helped me to write that section—and laugh about it—and move on. (Though I haven’t entirely given up worrying about my stomach.)

In the introduction you share about your first romance, “the kind of simple crush perhaps that can strike only an evangelical college girl at twenty when she has yet to be kissed” (p 2). I loved this phrase because I totally identified with it. It made me think of several things, the cult of romance and virginity that has, unfortunately been entwined with Western, Christian ideas of femininity. In reading your book, I saw that your journey to know Jane Austen gave you strength of character, new insights into romance and in the end womanhood. After this journey, how have you come to re-understand your femininity? I know it’s not the trophy husband, the flock of children (I love how you wrote that women after delivery seem to glow “as if they’ve just fulfilled their earthly mission . . . how could you ever ask anything of them again?” p. 180—as a childless wife myself I’m learning that there always seems to be a next bar to prove your womanhood) or the American dream home. So, what is it that women can bring the world as God’s female image bearers?

I think I need to read Ruby Slippers before I answer that! I’ve not thought about that question—or my experience with Austen, really, through that lens. But I’d love to chat with you about that over tea. I’m going to be pondering that..

Of all the Jane Austen characters, tell us, which do you most identify with and which would you most like to emulate?

I would like Anne’s quiet goodness (from Persuasion), and Elizabeth’s wit (from Pride and Prejudice). And perhaps that explains me, because those two elements really don’t fit in the same person!

To read more from Lori Smith, check out her book, A Walk with Jane Austen.

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