Jane Austen: A Love Story

December 10th, 2009

A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope, Told in Four Chapters


Chapter 1:  I discover Jane Austen.

I’m not yet a teenager when I come across a copy of Pride and Prejudice on my parents’ bookshelves.  It’s a copy I still have today.  It’s a beautiful, slim, surprisingly heavy paperback and really two books in one: Sense and Sensibility is the second novel.   I love the sound of the titles together and run them together in my mind: Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  I’m not entirely sure what “sensibility” means but I figure it out when I’m reading the book.  More or less.

Pride and Prejudice is the most romantic book I’ve ever read, displacing The Scarlet Pimpernel which had formerly had that distinction.

Years later I’ll discover that every young woman in the world thinks that Pride and Prejudice is the most romantic novel ever written and that every romance novelist who has a “cute meet” or a heroine who hates the hero on first sight is trying to recapture the Elizabeth/Darcy passion.  But for now I think I’m unique in loving this book above all others.

Sense and Sensibility is good, but nowhere near as good as Pride and Prejudice.  I search out and read every other Jane Austen novel I can get my hands on.  Emma becomes my second favorite (years later it switches places with PandP to become number one).  I like Mansfield Park.  Northanger Abbey gets a big shrug.  Persuasion‘s better but why did she have to make the heroine so old?  She’s already in her mid-twenties, the ancient hag.

And then . . . nothing.  No more.  No more Jane Austen.  That was all she wrote, except for some early stuff and one never finished novel.  I could have wept with frustration.  I have finally discovered the writer of my dreams but she died too young (at the age of 41).  She should have lived longer.  She should have written more.  I feel abandoned.

Chapter 2.  I grow up, get married, have children.

My husband is nothing like Mr. Darcy, although he bears a certain resemblance to Mr. Knightley, being honest, kind, attentive (which may explain why Emma is now my favorite book.  Or maybe I just relate to Emma’s habit of making blunders).  I start writing novels and steal from the Emma/Knightley romance for my first one.  I’ll steal more from Austen as time goes by, but so does every female author I know.  She is the mother of modern romance.

Mostly, though, I’m a full-time mom.  Among other lessons, I learn what it is to sit in doctors’ offices while my children get various diagnoses.  First autism.  Then Celiac Disease.  And then, the week she’s due to start kindergarten, my daughter becomes so weak she can’t walk.  Her speech slurs.  She can barely hold her head up.  We end up in the E.R. and then she’s admitted to the hospital.  We’re there for several days and leave with a diagnosis of Addison’s Disease.  Her immune system has created antibodies to her own adrenal glands which have stopped functioning.  From now on, she has to take cortisol orally twice a day.  Without it, she would die.

We start off crushing the pills into tiny pieces, then we break them into small bits, then we cut them in quarters, then halves.  Pretty soon she can toss down several whole pills without even thinking.  Without even water.  She becomes a pill expert.

Life goes back to normal.

Chapter 3: I read an article online.

My friend Kim is taking a class on Jane Austen.  She mentions to me casually one day that most scholars believe Austen died from Addison’s Disease.  At home, I run to the computer and look up Austen’s biography: sure enough, a scholar writes that her description of her symptoms (including how she “changed colors”–my daughter turned a dark tan color from the Addison’s) has led most biographers to that conclusion.  I stare at the computer–and burst into sobs.   I can’t even explain why.  Something about how Austen never wrote enough connects to that awful week in the hospital watching my daughter struggle to get back to normal . . . I can’t explain it.  All I know is I just can’t stop crying.

In a weird way, it makes sense to me though.  That connection.  It’s like the fact that I loved Austen so much meant my daughter got her disease.  I know it’s not logical and I don’t REALLY believe that.  It’s just a feeling.

Chapter 4: Another theory gets put forth.

And then, just last week, my friend Jillian sends me a link she thinks I might find interesting.  It’s a post on CNN’s website profiling a woman with Addison’s Disease who calls into question the previous post-mortem diagnosis.  She doesn’t think Austen’s symptoms fit with Addison’s.  She thinks it’s likelier Austen died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  Some doctors have also speculated that she had a form of TB.

Ultimately, the article concludes, there’s no way to know for certain what Austen died of.  It’s all speculation.  We can agree that Austen died too young and that whatever she died of robbed the world of one of the greatest novelists of all time.

Meanwhile, my daughter lives in a time when a couple of small pills a day keeps her healthy.  We barely even have to think about her disease–it’s just something to write down on camp forms.  And I have to remember to pack up pills whenever she goes away.  But it’s okay.  It’s all okay.

My only frustration?  That I can’t get her to read Pride and Prejudice.  I think she’d like it.