I decided to stake a claim to my space, to make my cottage in the Southern Highlands into my permanent home, to spend my time trying to understand my malaise, to find a happier way of being.
After 50 years of marriage, it was a difficult, complicated and emotionally painful decision. My husband was, I think, bewildered. I had never discovered a way to convey to him the intensity of my own feelings. I longed to make decisions without being challenged, to be the one who sometimes had the last word, especially in matters that were chiefly my personal concern.
I was tired, I realized; I was especially tired of being surrounded by people whose values I could no longer pretend to share. I had no idea how it would turn out for any of us as a family, but
it was, I thought, time to take my turn; a last chance to examine what had become of a girl’s once-upon-a-time great expectations of life.
It occurred to me that my Greatest love outside the family and work had always been a love of reading fiction; of all the novels I had read, Jane Austen’s were my benchmark for Pleasure as her heroines had been models for the sort of woman I wanted to become.
A nostalgia for those books swept over me. So I decided to think of recovery as a Rehabilitation of my reading life, and to start by Revisiting the six novels. I wanted to re-read those passages that had made Austen’s fiction important to me: the bons motsthe well-worn Quotations and the lively conversations.
I didn’t know it then, but I was embarking on an untested approach to reading. I was making Austen’s novels a starting point for exploring the satisfactions and dissatisfactions of my own life, framed and illuminated by her fictional universe.
Like Emma, I rejoiced in the “exquisite sight, smell, Sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a Storm”
I would re-examine my lived life in the context of my reading life, hoping that I would better understand and hopefully Transform my perplexed state of mind. I would read Jane Austen’s novels with greater intent; reliving the past Pleasure but also opening my mind to other possibilities, bringing the full complement of my feelings, thoughts and lived experiences to the act and art of reading.
Austen’s fiction is sometimes concerned with improving the estate. So, I renovated my cottage at the top of the hill. It wasn’t as challenging as the task that Mr Rushworth faced at Sotherton, in the novel Mansfield Park, but I started with color. I had the walls painted yellow, the color of Sunshine, inside and out. A craftsman in a nearby village copied a Frank Lloyd Wright design for glass panes and inserted them in a frame to make a welcoming front door. I chose a tall slender lamppost to light the entrance at night. A friendly gardener helped me plant beds of cream and green hellebores under the mature rhododendron trees and masses of graceful bluebells under the birches.
From a newly built elevated reading room with vast windows I looked out on a maple grove and up a thickly wooded hill. Like Emma, I rejoiced in the “exquisite sight, smell, Sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a Storm”; the difference was that Emma’s Storm was past, and mine was still Raging inside me.
The seeds of my life have been following a decade-long pattern. It turned out that I would live in the cottage that I called Lantern Hill, after a favorite childhood book, for almost 10 years, during which I discovered just such a small piece of Canvas in regional Australia as the one that served Austen as she Sketched her typically English comedies of manners.
I didn’t guess that, by re-reading Austen’s fiction at the age of 70, I would be consoled in ways that would lead me to the best years of my life.
I lived alone but I was less Lonely than I had been earlier in my life. People made judgments; I didn’t heed them. Some asked questions; I didn’t answer them. Others – mainly women – understood, because they, too, had experienced the unbearable loneliness of marriage. The only friends I retained were people I cared for and about.
I filled my days with reading, sometimes alone, sometimes in the excellent company of other Austen Readers. These were different ways of reading, and each had its Rewards. My three daughters remained, as always, the closest and most beloved friends of all, my latter-day heroines. During this period, they taught me as much as they had, I hoped, learned from me.
For the first time in my mature adult life I took a risk. It was often daunting, but I soon felt that being mistress of all I surveyed had its compensations. I thought that “to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure” as I opened the first of the six novels I intended to re-read might be, as Fanny Price concludes in Mansfield Park, “The most perfect refreshment”. I didn’t guess that, by re-reading Austen’s fiction at the age of 70, I would be consoled in ways that would lead me to the best years of my life.
Edited extract from The Jane Austen Remedy (Allen & Unwin) by Ruth Wilson, out on March 29.
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