STARRED REVIEW
September 19, 2016

Giving youth the cold shoulder

Rebecca Smith, a great-niece of Jane Austen, writes about how her famous ancestor taught her to relish the pleasures of middle age in a behind-the-book essay.
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Last night my 19-year-old daughter’s friends were here for “prinks” (pre-going out drinks, much cheaper than buying them in a club). They all looked gorgeous. My daughter was in shorts and, I’m pleased to say, flat shoes. I can’t help but worry. They were all showing a lot of shoulder. The cold shoulder trend is really big in England at the moment.

 “Are you going to be ok, mum, all by yourself on Saturday night?” my daughter asked. Neither of my sons was home. One has just graduated and found a job in London. My little one (16 and just over six foot tall) was staying over at a friend’s, and my husband had already left to sing in a local pub, something he does a few times each week. I only go if I really feel like it.

Was I going to be ok, home alone on Saturday night?

“Of course,” I said, automatically.

After I’d waved them off I sat in the garden with my two cats. The chickens were already thinking about going to bed. I wondered if I minded that I wasn’t the one with something to do. I like going out, but the thought of exposing whichever body part is currently deemed the most important fills me with horror. It comforts me to know that once, my ancestor Jane Austen felt the same. She loved dancing and flirting when she was young, but settled happily into the life of the middle-aged writer.

We live in Southampton, England, where Jane Austen once lived. My 21st birthday party was at The Dolphin Hotel, where Jane Austen celebrated her 18th birthday. After a ball there in December 1808, Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra:

“Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected. . . . The melancholy part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.”

Here’s proof that fashions come round again and again: naked shoulders were de rigueur 208 years ago.

My favorite night out now is a trip to the theatre with my best friend, Alison. At the same ball where she pitied the girls with the naked shoulders, Jane said that she and her best friend Martha Lloyd “paid an additional shilling for our tea, which we took as we chose in an adjoining and very comfortable room.” Alison and I would find comfort in doing the same; it’s so much nicer to go out with a good friend than to be searching for The One. As Jane Austen wrote in November 1813:

“By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs [sweet compensations] in being a sort of chaperon, for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.”

So the writer of the world’s favorite love stories was quite happy to sit things out, drinking as much as she liked, while her nieces got all the attention. There is such pleasure in not caring about being the belle of the ball and in being able to just please yourself.

“The writer of the world’s favorite love stories was quite happy to sit things out, drinking as much as she liked, while her nieces got all the attention.”

I love going to museums and galleries and shopping by myself, able to go as quickly or slowly as I want without having to worry if somebody else is bored or wants to take ages looking at things that don’t interest me. When you have children or are in charge of somebody else’s (as Jane Austen often was) trips out involve constant awareness of their needs. Now that my children are older, I love doing things alone. The bliss of not struggling with a stroller and having to bring all that stuff!

Earlier in the week I was at the Jane Austen House Museum. I’ve been there countless times, but will never tire of the magical house and ever-changing garden. I spent a happy few hours, only looking at my watch occasionally to check I wouldn’t be late to meet my son after his first day at college in Winchester, a few miles away. I’m a feeble non-driver, too busy looking out of windows, I guess, to ever pass my driving test. As I rode away from the Museum on the bus, I thought of Jane Austen visiting London in summer 1813 and looking for likenesses of Mrs Elizabeth Darcy and Mrs Jane Bingley among the portraits. She didn’t have to take a bus, but rode in a barouche, the 19th-century equivalent of a sports car. She told her sister:

“I had great amusement among the pictures; and the driving about, the carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was.”

Thinking of my daughter asking, on her way out, whether I was going to be ok by myself, I realized that the answer will always be yes, of course, whether I say it automatically or pause to think. I realized that, like Jane, I like my “solitary elegance” very much, and that I’m very lucky to be able to please myself and to sit alone in the garden with my cats and the chickens or on the sofa by the fire with a book.  Like Jane, I’m quite happy that I don’t have to stand about exposing my shoulders or anything else. Like Jane, I realized that I like being middle-aged. 

Rebecca Smith, a 5th-great-niece of Jane Austen, is the author of three novels and several nonfiction books. Her latest, The Jane Austen Writer's Club, is a compilation of writing advice from the beloved English novelist. Smith teaches creative writing at the University of Southampton in England. 

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club
By Rebecca Smith
Bloomsbury

ISBN 9781632865885

Get the Book

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club

By Rebecca Smith
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781632865885

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