A Memoir in Five Novels
By Rachel Cohen
Alongside global Covid-19 and racial injustice, Rachel Cohen’s memoir about seven years spent reading Jane Austen may seem a welcome diversion or a silly distraction. Cohen herself, a reader of James Baldwin and the Russian poets, is initially “appalled” by her “condition” as a Janeite. But “Austen Years” is a thoroughly authentic, smart and consoling account of one writer’s commitment to another, in which Cohen, who is also the author of “A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists” and “Bernard Berenson: A Life in Pictures,” entrusts her own thoughts and feelings to a great writer’s craft.
Austen complained in a letter to her sister that “Pride and Prejudice” was “too light, & bright, & sparkling; it wants shade.” Cohen provides ample shade for all five of Austen’s major novels. She writes about starting life as a mother in Cambridge, Mass., while in deep mourning for her recently deceased father. She describes a long, often tortuous relationship with her husband, a friend from her days as a Harvard undergraduate. She tackles her father’s work on the role of imagination in organization theory. And though Austen is seemingly an odd match for such material, “Austen Years” is full of neat observations and provocative comparisons, folded into the story with a subtlety that keeps Cohen’s sense from getting sententious.
Father-daughter relationships are among the most vivid in Austen’s novels, and Austen was close with her own father, the Rev. George Austen, who sent the manuscript of “First Impressions” out for publication years before she rewrote it, after his death, as “Pride and Prejudice.” There, as in “Sense and Sensibility,” intimacy between sisters is also paramount. Cohen, who is close with her only sister, is alert to the nuances of sisterly conflicts, saying of “Sense and Sensibility”: “I thought what I wanted was Elinor’s relief, of at last being acknowledged and appreciated. But I think what I really wanted was Marianne’s grasp of the relationship between their two situations.”
Cohen pays close attention to gaps of time in Austen’s life, such as the years she lived without a permanent home, after her father’s death, before she rewrote and published her first novels. A period in which “the world had been through the Terror and many years of the Napoleonic Wars, and the close-knit Austen family had become far-flung.” Cohen reflects that sufferings become layered over time: the loss of a father; the loss of conditions needed to write; Austen’s private longing for a pianoforte. Austen’s novels become acts of revision, do-overs that correct narratives, showing us what was missing from them before.
Cohen is very interested in how Austen appears to writers of color, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose readings of “Jane Awesome” shape his own writing. Cohen’s commitment to reading Austen in an explicitly antiracist way generates some of the book’s most interesting passages, especially when she recounts Austen’s support for abolition, which nonspecialists may not be aware of. She explains the provocatively resonant title of “Mansfield Park,” set on an estate that depended for its wealth on a sugar plantation in Antigua. Lord Mansfield was an 18th-century judge whose decisions were landmarks in the push to abolish the English slave trade, which at the time was the largest in the world.
With considerable deftness, Cohen shows how Austen writes and rewrites versions of herself: “In ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ Elinor and Marianne struggle to grieve and to be known to each other; in ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ Elizabeth is all resilience, rapidity, light. In ‘Mansfield Park’ … Fanny laboriously tries to join the forgotten past to the unknown future, and is frequently mute. Emma is alert, magnificent, often wrong, but her voice is absolutely clear.” Austen becomes Cohen’s enduring companion through the joys and troubles of love and motherhood and the grief of a major loss. The novels reveal ways in which seemingly irreconcilable feelings are inextricably bound together. Lightness revisits and illuminates grief.