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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane Austen, elixir of youth?

Last year, an Australian octogenarian named Ruth Wilson made headlines when she completed a doctoral degree on Jane Austen and the pedagogy of reading. And now Wilson has expanded and revised her dissertation into a book – a “reading memoir” called The Jane Austen Remedy.

I must confess that titles like this – The Jane Austen[Fill in the Blank with Something Self-Help-y] – generally make my heart sink. Too often, what follows is a parade of platitudes, dressed up with superficial allusions to Austen’s novels or the movies based on them.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that Wilson’s book, which I haven’t yet read, may be a cut above this depressing average. In a recent podcast interview, Wilson, who turns ninety later this year, comes across as an incisive, sensible, and tolerant reader.

Wilson rebooted her life after a bout of illness and depression in her sixties made her rethink her choices – including, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, her long marriage. Eventually, she picked up the threads of her neglected academic ambitions and built her doctoral thesis around an appreciation of how Austen’s novels changed for her as she reread them at different moments in her life.

We’ve read versions of this book before – for example, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years – but the sheer amount of time over which Wilson has been reading Austen may well supply some extra insights. “We all read from our own memories and our own experience,” she says on the podcast.

Not everything Wilson says is uncontroversial (“Greer Garson remains in my head the only real Elizabeth Bennet”? As if!) but her late-life, Austen-powered Renaissance seems likely to resonate with plenty of other Janeites.

And as a grammar nerd myself, I give Wilson extra points for insisting on the value of careful attention to matters of structure. “My whole understanding of Emma comes out of my understanding of the subjunctive mood,” Wilson tells her interviewer. “I call it a subjunctive novel.” Intriguing! I’d read that chapter.


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