A Walk with Jane Austen
A few weeks ago, I posted an interview with Lori Smith, author of A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love, and Faith. Since then I have read her book. The Amazon reviewers who think there is too much Lori Smith and not enough Jane Austen didn’t read the book description very closely. This is not a biography of Austen but a memoir of Lori’s travels to Austen-related sites, an account of Lori’s search for physical and spiritual recovery as she retraces the steps of a favorite novelist. She writes with a light hand, vulnerable, just this side of silly at times but in the manner of kicking back with a buddy, and balanced with moments of great maturity and thoughtfulness. She didn’t convince me to run out and read all of Austen’s works—the book isn’t intended to have that effect, as it assumes readers are fans—but I did come to better understand Austen’s ongoing appeal. Perhaps more importantly, I came to know Lori Smith a lot better, and she is someone I am glad to know.
For me, this memoir read like that first intimate conversation with a new friend—the one in which you discover an inordinate number of commonalities between your lives. I discovered, for example, that we both love Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis; both grew up in independent fundamentalist churches but have since been drawn to mainline denominations by the historicity of the liturgy; both went to Christian colleges and find that a complicating factor in our careers; both have chronic illnesses; both worked for compulsive liars running Christian non-profits, experiences which helped prompt us to switch gears and become full-time writers. All this is revealed via Lori’s candid but respectful asides as she recounts her trek across England.
Of course, the point of the book is to explore the things Lori has in common with Austen, not least of which is being a writer and a single woman. In confronting Austen, she comes significantly face to face with herself, learning to adjust her expectations, to make changes where she can and be content where she can’t. It is hard to be a full-time writer—a potentially isolating career to begin with—especially when you’re sick and have no health insurance. It is hard to be thirty-something and single and find a place of fulfilling and valued service in the modern church. Lori realizes that she is not, in contrast to Austen, “at home in her quiet routines, her thriving simplicity”; instead, she desires significance and fears smallness:
I would like to make a grand contribution to the world to justify my existence and to define me. What thrilled Jane makes me panic. I don’t want to be small. I want to be incredibly, unbelievably significant. (And yet could anyone accuse Jane of being insignificant?) I know that part of that is good and spiritual—this desire for a life not to be wasted—and yet it seems a great stroke of pride.
I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.
And it does. In exploring Austen’s life, Lori comes to appreciate what she calls “the drama of ordinary life.” Austen’s biographers dig deep into the family relationships and histories to overturn what appears on the surface as a quiet life, and these small but significant events become real to Lori as she stands in the Austen homes and churches and trudges through the fields to the homes of Jane’s friends.
And I think, Of course. How many of our lives would people judge as entirely unremarkable—lives in which perhaps love fails, careers are made or broken, deep friendships and family relationships endure, tragedy is in some form or other inescapable, and the future is murky. These are our realities, and that’s where Jane specialized: the drama of ordinary life, lives not inflated beyond recognition and not with unbelievable goodness or incredible tragedy. Just mothers and fathers, sisters, friends. Pesky neighbors and rich neighbors and neighbors who like you but still want to get the better of you. At times, ridiculous clergy. Good-looking, weak-charactered men; good-hearted plain men; unbelievably rich men with character faults all their own. Fabulous romantic beginnings that may end up being nothing after all. Everyone’s foibles on display, with a bit of grace for nearly every character.
In other words, the concerns of Austen’s life and writings are those things we can all relate to, with which we must all come to terms—either graciously or ungraciously. It is a process of achieving balance in our own contexts, Lori argues, contexts shaped by our families, our friends, our travels, and yes, the writers we read. Austen’s writings nudge Lori to think deeper about faith and the mastery of character; and by reflecting on those themes, Lori’s memoir continues the discussion.
So if you’d like to make a new friend who loves Austen, take a walk with Lori Smith. I think you’ll find her an agreeable companion.