- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

I am rereading the entire set of Jane Austen novels, probably for the twelfth time. For me, they never get old, and I love her mastery of characters and plot.

I just found out that Jane basically was home-schooled, having spent about a year in a sort of female boarding school to pick up the social skills of the day — French, needlework, music and watercolors — but otherwise learning from her father, George Austen, a minister, and her two older brothers.

Their educational methods involved giving her the freedom of their large and varied library and having an open home where visitors and freewheeling discussions allowed the children to investigate and form their own ideas. Her father provided her with paper and materials for drawing and painting and encouraged her to explore her interests, even during a time when female education was not seen as important and when women were legally and financially restricted in their options.

Her storytelling abilities were sharpened through participating in the many plays her large family performed when she was young. By age 12, she began writing original stories, plays and poetry, and even collaborated with her sister and best friend, Cassandra, on a satire of a popular history textbook of the day. Jane wrote the text, spoofing the circuitous phrasings and euphemistic descriptions of the serious history books, while Cassandra painted watercolor illustrations. These comedic works were read aloud to entertain the family, who enjoyed a witty and intellectually brisk home atmosphere.

Jane enjoyed activities normal to her contemporaries: dancing, playing the pianoforte, sewing and making clothes, and social interactions with other families. As one of eight children, six of whom were boys, she never wanted for companionship. By age 14, Jane had decided on writing as her profession. By age 18, she had written a full-length novel, and over the next two decades she completed six that were published, four anonymously while she was alive, and two after her death, under her own name.

Living through a tumultuous era — the American and French Revolutions, the ascendancy and defeat of Napoleon, the spread of England’s power through a vast colonial network — Jane was able to observe human behavior through the unique lens of a family. Her books portray various professions and lifestyles, finding many things to respect and a good many things to poke fun at. We can relate to the decidedly ambitious and materialistic minister in “Emma,” but also to the devout and honorable ministerial candidates in “Mansfield Park” and “Sense and Sensibility.” We see rich aristocrats who are pompous and unintelligent, but also ones who are kind and responsive to tenants and servants.

Her heroines — as a woman, she naturally chose female protagonists — range from the restrained to the audacious, and from the timid to the outdoorsy. Her male characters exhibit the gamut of characteristics too, like the charming-but-immoral George Wickham to the reluctant pawn of Edward Ferrars.

I must admit, however, that men don’t seem to “get” Jane Austen’s stories. While my daughters and I love to snuggle into the sofa to watch the five-hour version of “Pride and Prejudice,” the men enter the room and start groaning. The idea that dialogue and relationships are the mainstay of a story seems totally reasonable to the women — but the men keep waiting for someone to “do” something.

Knowing now that her education was basically within her home and family makes me understand both her ability to work at a level beyond that assigned by society at the time, and also, her ability to see human relationships as the place where the most interesting stories exist.

Jane Austen died at age 41 of what may have been lymphoma, having never married. However, her stories remain fresh and alive to many generations of readers, giving her a sort of literary family she continues to delight.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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