Jane Austen: A Love Story

December 10th, 2009

A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope, Told in Four Chapters

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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.

  • I’m getting weepy just reading this, though I’m not sure exactly why. Come to think of it, I get a little weepy when anyone even says the name Mr. Knightly.

    Are we going to have to start dressing in period costume and going to Regency balls with the rest of the Jane Austen wackos? I’ll braid your hair if you’ll braid mine….

  • Claire says:

    It’s funny: I just saw a dress that looked like a period piece and thought, “Who actually wears this stuff around town?” And then I pictured EXACTLY the kind of woman who wears that stuff around town. Shudder. It wouldn’t have been so great living back then anyway. First of all, Darcys and Knightleys probably were just as hard to come by then as they are now. Secondly, there must have been a LOT of horse shit in the streets and it probably got all over the bottom of your dress. And, most importantly, people died young back then.

  • Claudia says:

    It is intriguing to read about the physical reaction you had when you learned Austen might have died from Addison’s Disease. It must have been such a complicated shock of a feeling as inside the horror of Austen’s early death was the wonder of a link between these two important women in your life, Jane and Annie. The only three people I’ve heard discussed with Addison’s disease are John Kennedy, Jane Austen, and your Annie. It’s almost as if no life can be perfect, and that those who are very special must have something flung their way.

    It also must be amazing to recognize the importance of living in this particular era for your daughter, that to go back in time would mean that something she doesn’t need to think much about could kill her.

    It is a fact universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of a mind must be in want of her very own favorite book. and that that book may not, must not be her mother’s favorite book.

    Oh, I loved your description of the book as an object in your hand, the way you thought about the titles before you read the book, the way you weren’t clear about the word sensibility.

  • rachelhamm says:

    I found your blog today after buying your book, The Smart One and The Pretty One. I immediately felt connected to Ava, just based on the description on the back jacket, but then I come to your blog and feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit! I’m one of the millions who think Austen is the absolute greatest writer of all time and who thinks that Pride and Prejudice is absolutely the greatest book ever written. And while I didn’t borrow from Austen’s plots when writing my own novel, my goal was to write a book that had a real life romance to it, like hers. Emma and Persuasion are tied as my 2nd favorite book, btw. Anyways, all that to say, I’m really glad I bought your book and found your blog and I can’t wait to read each!

  • Sally says:

    I am also an ASD mother – with somewhat similar son (he’s currently 8; we’ve been at this since he was 2.5). I just picked up your “Overcoming Autism” book last night. It is AMAZING! Such wonderful insight/advice. I too wish we would have focused on the gross motor.

    Why am I writing my praise and thanks on your Jane Austen page? I too am a Jane Austen fanatic. Me? I re-read the canon every few years. Husband? Knows what to purchase for gifts: any Jane Austen DVD (I have at least two versions of every movie, except “Northanger Abbey” – and sadly, not the 2007 version).

    Long after realizing that my mother-in-law was truly Lady Catherine (long before autism) – I had to hoot when I reread “Pride and Prejudice” AFTER autism. Oh my. LOL. This is the woman who declared (a few short hours after the cesarean delivery of my second child – while alone in the hospital room with me and my new baby) re: my first child, “this isn’t autism, I KNOW autism and THIS isn’t autism.”

    You should write a review on “So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” I think you might genuinely enjoy it. I think Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer goes a bit far on some of the characters, but it is still great fun for an ASD/Austen fanatic.
    http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781843104995

    Note: Sadly, I am not Elizabeth Bennet and only come up with my retorts long after the conversation.

    I am very sorry to hear of your daughter’s Addison’s disease. Very interesting: Addison’s/Autism/Autoimmune.

    Again, many thanks for “Overcoming Autism.” I look forward to reading more of your books.

  • Claire says:

    Thanks for all the great thoughts and comments, Sally! I’d never heard of anyone examining traits of autism in Austen. I’ll have to check it out. I’m so glad you like Overcoming Autism. We have a companion book to it out now–Growing Up on the Spectrum–for parents of older kids.

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