Austen and Boston
In May of 1811, Jane Austen’s local newspaper carried a report of the Battle of Albuera, a bloody encounter pitting Britain and its allies against the forces of Napoleonic France, part of the military campaign that we now call the Peninsular War.
Between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand men were killed or wounded, and writing to her sister, Cassandra, a few days later, Austen reported herself duly appalled: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!” she wrote. “And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!”
Austen’s cold-blooded but accurate assessment of the human response to disaster came to my mind this week, as I found myself emailing Boston friends to make sure they’d all escaped the bombs at the marathon finish line. They had, thank goodness -- but why “thank goodness”? Dozens of other people were killed, maimed or traumatized. Does it really matter that, as it happens, I care for none of them?
Of course, in our age, mass media bring us closer to the victims of distant tragedies than Jane Austen ever could be. Photographs and stories of the adorable little boy and the much-loved young women who died in Boston make us all feel, for a moment, that we join in mourning them. But most of us aren’t altruistic enough to care about these briefly humanized strangers the way we do about those we truly love. Leave it to Jane Austen, that bracingly unsentimental observer, to remind us of this uncomfortable fact of human nature.