The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson
This is an unusual book – part memoir of an interesting life, it is also the story of how a life was “reclaimed through reading” specifically the novels of Jane Austen. As an older woman Ruth Wilson was beginning to regret her calm life of conventional domesticity and marriage, so decided to reclaim her independence by a time of living alone and re reading the novels that had entered her life in 1947 as a teenager. So significant was her careful and structured reading that she decided to embark on a PhD on reading and teaching Austen, which she successfully completed in her late eighties in 2021.
While Austen’s books have been endlessly analysed, written of and adapted, considered and debated, this book looks at how one woman’s personal reactions to a collection of novels written many years before can speak not only to her but to many who may be in search of something more, a new perspective on a changing and challenging world. This is a personal book of memories and perspectives on novels which so many of heard of, but maybe not actually read in a spirit of enquiry and expectation that a woman of such different times could have anything to say to them. It argues for the joys of reading generally and specifically these early and revered novels. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.
This book is written from the perspective of an Australian who has lived in that country for most of her long life. Born in 1932 to Jewish parents, Wilson’s childhood was lived in the shadow of a war that was at once far away but also had effects on her family life as the secret horrors of persecution came to be known. As she reaches the age of sixty, she began to question how easily she had accepted a role as wife, mother and teacher rather than following a more unconventional and possibly more satisfying life. When a legacy allows her to buy a cottage away from her husband and family, she seizes the opportunity to go beyond Woolf’s room of her own and establish herself in her solitude to reread all of Austen’s novels. She had encountered them throughout her life but had not really read them as significant statements of what life could be, or how them commented on life’s chances and changes. She discovered connections with characters that spoke to her in a new way and became determined to share them with others in the light of her new discoveries. Thus she follows an autobiographical account of a settled life, of school followed by college then her conventional marriage. Her father’s occupation of a doctor inspired her to see reading as an “antidote”, written by a near saintly woman as portrayed in her family’s biography in Austen’s case. Generally, a love of language and stories has informed and fascinated her, from family stories to the literature she studied academically. An enthusiasm for acting and reading aloud has made the experience of texts more personal and significant. Her interest in grammar has informed her reading of the texts of Austen’s novel generally. Wilson embarks on a series of chapters looking back on her life through the framework of the individual novels which sharpens the observations she has been making on such topics as relocation and moral choices.
This is at once a personal memoir and an appreciation of Austen’s writing. There are also discussions of other authors and writing, as there is a substantial bibliography of other books mentioned. There is also a short reading list of Austen related books of many types provided. This is a very interesting and readable book which has much to say on Austen’s writing and its power to change lives as well as change perspectives of women’s expectations and experiences.