Jane Austen rescued her: A memoir about reading and solace

Rachel Cohen never imagined that she would experience a stretch of time in which she only wanted to read Austen. Until it happened. 

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels” by Rachel Cohen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp.

Even though the year is only a little more than halfway gone, 2020 has understandably been filled with talk about the “solace” of reading. More so than in any previous year in living memory, readers have been diving into books in order to escape the harsh realities of the outside world. 

In her new book “Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels,” award-winning author Rachel Cohen writes of exactly this kind of solace-seeking. While dealing with her father’s death and the birth of her daughter, Cohen found herself in a readerly relationship with the novels of Jane Austen that was more fixed, almost more compulsory, than anything she’d previously imagined for herself. In the opening pages, she muses that “if you had told me that years were coming when I would hardly pick up another serious writer with any real concentration, that the doings of a few English families would come to define almost the entire territory of my reading imagination, and that I would reach a point of such familiarity that I would simply let Austen’s books fall open and read a sentence or two as people in other times and places might use an almanac to soothe and predict, I would have been appalled.”

Her readers will be more forgiving on that point. Many of them have likely experienced the same degree of beneficial concentration in times of stress or sorrow, whether it’s Austen or the Brontë sisters or Shakespeare. But they also won’t find anything appalling in these pages. Cohen has taken her fascination with – and personal dependence on – one great author and transmutes it into something any reader in the world will find downright marvelous.

Austen herself had a stylishly self-deprecating view of her own books; she described them as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” But her adoring readers have never for an instant believed that effect to be “little,” and among many other things, “Austen Years” underscores that Austen is a timeless author, the builder of an endless world, as Cohen imagines. “If I picture a map of the five Austen novels in my mind, the first four are like the orbiting bodies of a planetary system, widening outward in concentric circles, from the tight binary star of the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility, to the family life of Pride and Prejudice, to the wider ellipse of Mansfield Park, all the way out to the perfectible community resonant in Emma. Persuasion is something like an asteroid that moves, irregularly, repeatedly, among the different spheres.”

“Persuasion” figures repeatedly in “Austen Years” as both something of a wild card and as a lightning rod. “Second chances may come when some chances are gone,” Cohen writes. “Austen is always described as witty, stylish, but Persuasion is a melancholy book.” The story of patient, realistic Anne Elliot resonates throughout the book, in large part because, as Cohen points out, “Persuasion is about mourning.” Grief, she writes, “runs through the whole of life and leaves nothing untouched.”

And yet, “Austen Years” is not a gloomy book. The sadness of a dying parent is balanced throughout the narrative by the joy of welcoming a new child into the world, and every page is charged with the complicated, multilayered thrill of reading. The reading focus here, of course, is Austen, and even the most dedicated Janeites will find in these pages plenty of fascinating insights into their author. The book is at once an impressive analysis of Austen’s fiction and a first-rate biography of Austen herself. 

At its heart, however, this story is as much about the joy of reading as it is about anything else. In a very real way, reading Austen saved Rachel Cohen at crucial moments in her life, and although Austen has been the focus of many such concentrations (the Monitor, for instance, previously reviewed Ted Scheinman’s “Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan”), she’s far from alone in providing such a service. Readers have found solace in “The Tale of Genji,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Horace’s “Odes,” and a thousand other works over the millennia. Some of those readers have then written their own books, which can go on themselves to become sources of solace for future readers. “Austen Years” joins those books as a shining account of how indispensable books can be.

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