“She is always, and still, reading Persuasion. She loves Persuasion. It is not the most brilliant or elegant or formally demanding, but it seems to know her, and all of them, so well. It has the depth of dreams, and like dreams it is incomplete, and she cannot really understand it.”
In 2012, Rachel Cohen was pregnant with her first child, and her father was dying of cancer. As these two major changes fundamentally upended her life, she found herself reading almost nothing but Jane Austen, an author she had first gone through as a senior in high school, but then never returned to. Slowly, she also found herself warming to memoir, a genre she had previously avoided despite being a teacher of creative non-fiction. As a dying wish, her father had charged her with publishing a letter he had written to a colleague, which had begun to shape what might have been the next phase of his career as an organizational psychologist. While her children grow, and her memories of her father inevitably begin to fade, Cohen struggles to find a way to fulfill her promise, while also grappling with the ways in which she has used Austen to order and interpret this season of her life.
Austen Years is a book about grief and change, and many of the most touching and emotional parts of the book relate to Cohen’s memories of her father, the sadness of slowly losing him even while he was still alive, and her responsibility for his legacy and memory after he has passed. I kept wondering when we would get to read the letter which is often referenced, but it is not included in the main body of the text, but rather attached as an appendix. I’d recommend flipping to the back and reading it the first time it is mentioned, and then continuing from there, as Cohen repeatedly picks up on many of its themes, including the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and works with them throughout the book.
You can only read a book for the first time once, though the impression it leaves may be hazy or crystal clear; Cohen has some of both in her memories of Austen. But reading a book about a book, or books, that you have read, is sometimes perhaps the closest thing to reading a book again for the first time. Seeing a familiar story through someone else’s eyes, through someone else’s life, defamiliarizes it just enough to render it fresh again. At the same time you hold it alongside your own impressions and memories, comparing and contrasting the two. It is also fascinating to see how different people can be as readers and rereaders. Like Cohen, I first read Austen in high school, and I revisit the novels often—most recently Emma—and often find comfort in them at times when I can focus on reading little else. But unlike the author, I always reread them in whole, beginning to end. Cohen in dips into parts, rereading only the final third of Sense and Sensibility for months at time, or lingering over the scene in which Darcy and Elizabeth walk together at the end of Pride and Prejudice and finally come to an understanding.
Cohen moves through five of Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, graduating to Mansfield Park and Emma, and always circling back again and again to her favourite, Persuasion. She omits Northanger Abbey entirely, and briefly addresses the fragment known as Sanditon. She writes of Persuasion’s heroine as if she were a real acquaintance, beginning “when I first knew Anne Elliot,” and continuing from there. Having married late to a friend she had known for twenty years, Cohen relates deeply to Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s second chance romance, as well as the echoes of the loss of her mother that reverberate through Anne’s story. I admit I’ve also been secretly fond of steadfast Anne, Austen’s oldest heroine, who is no longer pretty, but gets her second chance at love anyway.
At turns touching and introspective, Austen Years is fragmentary, struggling after but never quite achieving cohesion. Cohen is trying to string almost too much together, and it shows even in her sentences, which are flighty and rife with commas trying and failing to do the work of more robust punctuation. The author is grasping after some kind of sense in the wake of loss, but seems unable to get the disparate parts to coalesce. Life and death are not always neat and orderly in that way, and so we roam from memoir to biography to literary criticism, and back again, as Cohen ranges over her marriage, her father’s life and career, Austen’s life and career, family, mortality, legacy, community, theatre, history, literary biography and more in a quest to understand why these works consumed her for so many years.
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