Excerpt: Finding Joy and Laughter

As part of the blog tour, today I wanted to share a little excerpt with you. There are so many parts of The Jane Austen Guide to Life that I’d like to post, but this is one of my favorites–a few bits from the chapter on Finding Joy and Laughter.  Enjoy!

Finding Joy and Laughter

Jane Austen was buoyant. She lived with energy and joy. It’s impossible to read her letters and books without coming away with the sense that she was something of an irrepressible force. She laughed at herself, at the everyday world, and at everyone around her (mostly all in good fun)—and she welcomed having them all laugh at her. But if she relished laughter, there was more to that vital spirit of hers. She wrote to Cassandra of a ball at which she had “had an odd set of partners”: “I had a very pleasant evening, however, though you will probably find out that there was no particular reason for it; but I do not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it.” So she did not “wait for enjoyment,” she simply took joy wherever she could, and as much as possible.

Greet the world with energy.

I think Austen could give classes on loving life. She was engaged, even in small things. Daily concerns were not below her wit or interest. She could laugh about needing to repair her hat—“on which You know my principal hopes of happiness depend,” she wrote—and tell Cassandra, “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” She had a talent for taking deep pleasure in common things. “To sit in idleness over a good fire in a well proportioned room is a luxurious sensation,” she said of a “very quiet evening” with neighbors. “Sometimes we talked & sometimes we were quite silent.” Her brother James’s wife Mary was there for the same evening, and “found it dull,” but for Austen, even as lively as she was, a quiet, lovely fire was a sumptuous thing. In London with Henry, in spite of being away from her sweet countryside, she could revel in “exquisite weather”: “I enjoy it all over me, from top to toe, from right to left, Longitudinally, Perpendicularly, Diagonally.”

As a young woman, Austen could dance all night at a ball, provided she had enough partners. That gives me a picture of her lively self, and I like to think, ball or not, she continued to dance. Her spirit lilted, her heart was engrossed in the world around her.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Austen surely thought seriously about the world, but she was never austere or somber, particularly in regard to herself. She was no pedantic, dreary Mary Bennet. Her letters are full of small jokes at her own expense. Away from home she begged to be remembered “to Everybody who does not enquire after me.” Trying to get to London (that “Scene of Dissipation & Vice”) to visit friends, afraid she would find them away, she joked about being lured into the oldest profession, saying, “I should inevitably fall a Sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make me drunk with Small Beer.” (She was likely referencing The Harlot’s Progress by painter William Hogarth, which shows an innocent country girl being led astray by the mistress of a brothel.) When reading Austen, if ever unsure about how to interpret her, it’s generally safe to assume there was a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

Her family and friends would have expected this. No doubt, many of them shared her gift, to one degree or another, and her humor had been developed and encouraged at home. Mrs. Knight, her brother Edward’s adoptive mother, suggested that Jane might marry Reverend Papillon, the rector of Chawton, and this became for years a running family joke. Jane said, out of her gratitude to Mrs. Knight, “I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own.—I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.” Her friends would expect jokes at their expense as well. She teased Martha Lloyd about carrying on in an unseemly fashion with another clergyman, the married and decades-older Dr. Mant. I’m sure these are just small examples of what would have been commonplace for the Austen family. For them, to write even something simple like a family letter meant injecting levity into the quotidian stuff of life. It’s a shame none of Cassandra’s letters remain; Jane thought them more entertaining than her own.

Cry, then laugh. Or maybe just laugh.

Austen would use her laughter as a balm, as she did with her illness, or when she wrote about her “tears flow[ing] . . . at the melancholy idea” of Tom Lefroy leaving town. There certainly were difficulties and likely even depressions in her life, times she was unable to be so bright. We have little record of those, but we know that when possible, she would have directed her heart back to the humor where it was most at home. When Martha had her heart broken by a mysterious Mr. W., Jane hoped after she had recovered a little that she would “be able to jest openly about” him—as though laughter was an invaluable part of the healing process.

Even smaller things, that for most of us would only annoy us and lead to complaint, Jane approached with humor. She told Cassandra, “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.” Of a bothersome leak in their Southampton home, she wrote, “Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. . . . The contest between us & the Closet has now ended in our defeat; I have been obliged to move almost everything out of it, & leave it to splash itself as it likes.” I’m sure Jane wasn’t immune to irascibility, but it wasn’t where her heart lived.

Take joy.

Jane Austen could not be apathetic or dull. Life never bored her. She approached it with hearty, unfaltering vigor, with a temperament disposed to fully experiencing all that was passing around her, with a true capacity for contentment. Her great energy effervesced into her novels, giving them the lightness, the whimsy we love. Only her heart and mind could have given us the stories she did. Her spirit was indomitable. She would find amusement, she would take joy. If I could inherit one thing from Austen, I would harness a bit of her energy and delight—to take deep pleasure in small things, to meet life with animated expectation, and above all—always—to laugh.


Copyright Lori Smith, 2012

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  1. I can totally see Mary Austen being totally bored and Jane finding pleasure where Mary could not. The two of them seemed to be like night and day. I do find myself reading Jane’s letters and laughing out loud at points because of some snide or self-deprecating comment she has made. She was no wallflower and thanks be to God that we have what we do have to read of her thoughts and her stories.

    1. I agree, Karen — Mary and Jane must have been nearly complete opposites. If only Cassandra hadn’t burned all those other letters!

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