Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love and Faith by Lori Smith

“It’s a difficult, romantic thing to be a dreamer” admits Lori Smith in one of many, many quotes I would love to appropriate and cross-stitch and frame and hang on my walls as the story of my life.

A Walk with Jane Austen: A journey into Adventure, Love andFaith should rightly be called the Difficult Musings of a Romantic Dreamer for the book is, at its core, Lori Smith’s relatable reflections as she stumbles through singlehood, depression and faith.

There are certain books that tug your heart strings and catch your throat and make you squeal aloud at every moment where you realize that the author has taken words and thoughts out of your mouth and heart and slapped them on a page. A Walk with Jane Austen is very much A Walk into Rachel’s Psyche.  It is Smith’s blatant and commendable honesty, her frustratingly poignant stream-of-consciousness and her willingness to spill her thoughts and pangs like a tipped-over inkpot that make this story the most poignant caption of a literary infused life I think I have ever read.

It speaks to those of us who love Austen, certainly, as Smith weaves her way through the English tapestry: beguiled at Bath, cloistered in an abbey, bewildered at Lyme as she traces through her beloved’s footsteps. Mostly, however, this book speaks to a specific type of Austenian: those of us romantic sorts who are blessed and cursed by a passionate devotion to Christianity in our single thirties.  Cursed, you ask? Yes. Smith realizes, as so many of us do, that the limited dating pool and strict moral requirements of what a Christian match should be can make the odds seemingly impossible.  Add to that a passion and heart for romance and a God-given desire to seek that which is beautiful, fantastical, witty and light and you are caught with Lori Smith in a modern web: where educated women feel at a loss--- so likely are they to cherish their post-feminist independence while guiltily admitting contradiction as they ache for an Austenian match. It’s a difficult, romantic thing to be a dreamer, yes; but to be cursed as a Christian with a romantic, dreamer’s mind? Even worse.  Like lapping water out of a sinking boat with a plastic pail.

Readers of this blog know that I was on work leave for 5 months recently with debilitating anxiety.  As someone who has struggled with a mental disorder her entire life ( one that was only recently given a name), I fell in love with Smith’s vulnerability as a depression sufferer plagued with a malady that is not christened until near the end of the novel.  Some might find the dark, smoky edges of this romantic Walk to be a tad over-bearing; but that is what makes it special.  Smith does not shy away from using her plight as a balm.  She admits to being smack in the middle of a life-long dream ( traipsing through Austen-land) while still admitting moments of defeat.  Just because you are chasing Darcy-coloured rainbows, doesn’t mean that the curses of real life will fail to set in.  To add to this, Smith writes eloquently about Christian lamentation: and a modern weakness inducting believers into a world of radiance and light while scorning natural human lamentation.  From the book of Job to her flitting, irreplaceable thoughts, Smith guides us through the happy and the sad: the rainbow-tinted and the melancholia.

 If you are a single Christian woman, this book will speak to you so strongly, you’ll look up and be surprised that a best friend is not spilling all deliciously confusing details across from you over a glass of wine.  Lori Smith GETS it: she gets that “…the other skill that single women possess is overanalyzing every conversation” and that “Of course, a single woman who wants to be married has, ironically, no sharper skill than that which rules out potential suitors before fully understanding their character.”   Smith provides a delightful paradox:  she re-imagines Austen’s tone and timbre while inserting the quite different dilemmas plaguing single Christian females.  Certainly we do not have the constrictions of sex nor of money or patriarchy in Austen’s society; but Smith works that we have the same obstacles, we crave the same matches, we trip over ourselves in the pursuit of love: bewildered, shamed, uninhibited.    To add to the perilous puzzle, Smith “gets” the evangelical cadences of an upbringing so familiar to all of us: “She didn’t have to deal with the evangelical culture I was raised in---“, she explains, “the one in which Christian things are separate from other normal (or as the church sometimes describes them “worldly” ) things.”

Further, she understands the scathing imp at the back of our minds which brings to forefront our questioning of our path.  For a contingent of women taught to pray for their future husbands and families in children’s church and through youth group to the same sect of women in their 30s, she understands that making sense of the nonsensical is part and parcel of the plight.   “He’ll be normal”, she hopes, “Someone I could actually introduce to my non-Christian friends without cringing.”  If you are in the datingsphere as a Christian single woman and you have not thought this; then you are either lying to yourself or are much more decent at heart than I am.   Smith is an automatic ally who understands how difficult it is to seek God’s path and timing when our impatient human nature forces us to explore the great world beyond: “Our conversations range from incisive devotional thoughts to solving poverty to the creepy, ogling married guys buying us drinks downtown.”  Like she says of Jane Austen, Smith is able to engage with the world around her. She fully epitomizes the contradictory nature of modern Single Christian females: those who are cursedly frustrated at God’s ridiculous timing while steering into moment of secularism in order to discover if there is light and love and passion available. Those who worry that one does not have the luxury of standards when there are so few male believers left to choose from (many marry young; there are twice as many single Christian males as females in North America).  She IS NORMAL.  Further, she muses, on the seeming unavailability and awkward friendship nature of connections with Christian men over a certain age: “It is a truth universally acknowledged among single Christian women that single Christian guys beyond a certain age are weird.”  Harsh, perhaps, and most likely not universal; but, again, she mirrors Austen-- bringing the peripheral subject of her thesis to forefront and honestly revealing a thought that actually got published in the Christian market (God bless you, WaterBrook).   “ I still want it so much”, she says of marriage as her 33 year old self traces Austenian heritage, “And if that sounds crazy to some, since I’m currently thirty-three and still very marryable, it may help to know the expectations in the conservative Christian world in which I was raised. Girls were supposed to grow up, go to college, and get married. “  To put that into further context and to heighten the stress and significance, I will echo that the first time I had the thought that I was abnormal for being single and pursuing an education and wanting a career was at 18.  There are zillions of readers who will not understand  the moments of vacuous inadequacy one feels as an aging single Christian woman; but they are there.  In a world where we are supposed to be supportive of differences, to seek God’s will and to find God outside of human expectations, to realize you are someone not quite like the rest of the flock is a constant sting. Moreover, to be an intelligent someone out of the flock who seemingly chose education and career outside of early marriage (I’m talking 18-25 here, the average Christian marrying age), further removes one from the idealized domestic sphere.  

Smith quotes writer Sue Monk Kidd’s talk about the defining choice every woman makes between love and independence.  Smith further investigates its ramifications and contextualizes it in the Christian sphere. But, as an independent woman on an independent excursion, she allows room for ruminations on love: realized and mentally constructed. There are a few major relationships in the book which make up the “love” component of the subtitle.  One being Jack: the odd, Christian friend-sorta-date who occupies Smith’s time at Oxford 
( and her thoughts long after), one being Smith’s reconciling her love for herself and God against moments of shadow and Smith’s love for Austen: what Austen stood for, what she wrote, how she was ahead of her time, how she provides a metric against which we should all attempt to live and love. She also speaks to the relationship she longs to have. A beautiful one with adored looks, not unlike the one Darcy gives to piano-playing Elizabeth during a scene in the 1995 BBC miniseries.

Smith, like me, believes herself to have been inherently compliant: to want to please her parents, her God, her church, the expectations told and untold and with this heavy weight she loses herself, if momentarily, and often just as reality comes  galloping back in, in the world of Jane Austen.  I realize that I spoke far more to the personal resonances of this book than to the Austen-centric mold of this Walk; but that is because that is not what hit be so hard about this reading experience.  I know a lot about Jane Austen and I have read dozens of books and studied thoroughly in University so, truth be told, I don’t need a literary travelogue
 ( though this one is so much appreciated); but I do need an author who understands me. I do need someone who is brave enough to spurt out on page what wrestles so acutely in my heart and mind but has rarely found a voice.  Smith, in the guise of a beautiful homage to a great female writer, speaks up for those who cannot speak for themselves and in this case, she speaks up for me and my ilk: we trusty, conflicted band of Christian single females intelligent and contradictory: wanting love and independence, sitting over coffee wondering why he said this or who he is or why we are attracted to guys outside of the fold and what it is to be equally or unequally yoked and why can’t EVERYONE BE MR.FRAKKIN’ DARCY --- she speaks for us.   And while she is speaking for us she takes us on a rollicking rural journey through the mind and thoughts and, yes, heart of the greatest female writer of all time.


Unknown said...

Beautifully said, Rachel!

Rachel said...

it was so good. read. read read everyone read this now

Charity said...

I'll have to read this. In about a month, when I have plowed through the other 6 books sitting beside my bed.

(WHY, library, must you get in everything I request THE SAME DAY??)

Rachel said...

oh charity, this book is SO good! so good! I loved every moment of it.