Finding comfort in the familiar world of Jane Austen during lockdown

In a world shut down, Jane Austen comes to the rescue with her immortal studies of all sorts of kinder, gentler curtailed freedoms

26 April 2020 - 00:00 By
Rose Williams and Theo James as Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker in Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'.
Rose Williams and Theo James as Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker in Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'.
Image: Supplied

It started with a pretty-close-to-dammit full frontal of Mr Sidney Parker, gentleman suitor and heroic disposer of his Regency kit on the sea shores of Sanditon in the BBC series of Jane Austen's unfinished novel - the self-same Sanditon.

It blossomed as Mr Parker channelled another diffident but aquatically prone Austen hero - Mr Darcy. Remember when he emerged fetchingly wet and Neptune-like from his frolic in the buff in Pride and Prejudice - back when Colin Firth demonstrated his range?

But the beginning I speak of is not in reference to my warm feelings for one Theo James aka Sidney Parker and his marvellous way with interpretive water play, although these warm feelings are in good supply, but rather to my sudden-onset Austenism.

A thorough reading of Austen's multiple works has taken up all of my mental space during this lockdown. To be fair, Theo James vied for my attention. Valorously. It seems that, like many of my isolated contemporaries, I have found reading in isolation difficult.

I can't really explain it, but as I sit down to the latest Hilary Mantel, my mind fogs up and wanders off. Instead of applying myself to contemporary literature I feel compelled to read yet another doomsday article analysing the epidemic on yet another news site. Not only in English, mind you - I am keeping track in Greek, Italian and French; I can't really read Spanish, not for lack of trying. And I have no Chinese.

But as soon as I started in on the Austen, I couldn't stop. I read Sanditon, I read The Watsons (another incomplete snippet). I read Lady Susan - ja, I bet you didn't know about that one, and now I am embarked on Mansfield Park.

The familiar world of Austen is peculiarly comforting. Preserved in amber, all the characters trot out their lines faultlessly, get caught up in their small domestic dramas, attend the balls, worry about their finances, endeavour to fall in love and get married, gamble their money away, flirt with the wrong person, experience heartache, determine to do better, you know the shtick.

All the minutiae of life circa 1816 or thereabouts, playing out immutably, continuously, untrammelled by the passage of time, always the same.

I wonder if this retrogressive comfort reading has anything to do with the condition we are now all experiencing - this unfamiliar but persistent constraint on our freedom of movement. Unless you were previously employed as a submariner, a lighthouse keeper or a prison inmate, this state of immobilisation is something entirely new.

I wonder if this retrogressive comfort reading has anything to do with the condition we are now all experiencing - this unfamiliar but persistent constraint on our freedom of movement

It's a physical condition, obviously, but it is also a mental one. How to break free from the invisible shackles that are keeping us housebound? Plus there is that low-level anxiety. What is going to become of us?

Is there an after or is our invisible imprisoner going to keep us in this state for an indefinite and increasingly precarious and impecunious future? Will anything ever be the same again? If, that is, we don't perish of the Covid first.

So to Austen I flee. There my mind can roam free. It is a happier place, with clear rules, a world - albeit an entirely fragmentary version of a world - that continues to exist, perfectly formed, consistent and above all, calm. Things continue to work there, because Jane wills them so. Her invisible hand pulling all the strings for evermore.

Even when someone makes a run for it and elopes - heaven forfend - all is resolved, mostly happily. It is perhaps cold comfort - after all, we are still here, the future unknowable, and our fates unknown - but there is joy to be had in the long-held truths of Austen's world. Something at least is constant. And also, Theo James's abs really help when the walls come crowding in. Take it from me.


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