Jane Austen is not my favorite author. I feel a little embarrassed saying this, but it’s true. If I had to go into an underground bunker to outwait the zombie apocalypse and I could only take one book, it would be The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, because only Jeeves and Wooster could make the z.a. endurable. Of course viewed purely in terms of value for money, it would make more sense to take the considerably longer Emma or Mansfield Park into that bunker, but that’s the sort of reasoning that would have me reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace while listening to the sounds of the aboveground horde moaning “Brains! Brains!”
Austen’s not even my second or third favorite author and to be honest, I don’t know if she even makes the top ten. And apart from Wodehouse being on top, I really can’t give an exact order or say who’s in the top ten. The candidates come mostly from genre fiction and include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell and especially Edgar Rice Burroughs. I did not know it when a child in first grade, but Burroughs’ heroes would inform my opinions and understandings of the world to this day. Their sense of decency and fair play would one day make me appreciate Darcy and Knightley. (Burroughs would also make me think women lay eggs or bathe in slimy pools to reproduce, but I don’t hold that against him.)
Science fiction, of course, often dealt in grand themes such as galactic civilizations and human evolutions and I was lost to that wonder and spectacle. I actually skipped senior English so that I might spend time in the library reading science fiction. My adolescent mind would never have bothered to read of the lives of three or families in a country village. What I did not realize, however, was that science fiction was preparing me for the day when I would come to appreciate Jane Austen.
My greatest and most fundamental inspiration, the reason I am the person I am today, is Star Trek. I know to keep my phaser on stun, to obey the Prime Directive (unless morally unjustifiable) and to seek out new worlds and new civilizations.
Despite the seeming contradiction, reading and writing historical novels is a lot like reading and writing science fiction. The manners and mores of Regency England are so different to us that it almost seems like an alien world; and certainly an author feels like a time traveler, careful not to step on a butterfly or to risk exposure by introducing an anachronism. At times writing Regency fiction I feel like a Federation scientist observing a pre-warp civilization.
The other genre fiction I appreciated was mystery. I’d been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories from an early age. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was incredibly important for grounding me in the reality of the past, a past that would eventually stretch back to the English Regency. I have to credit Doyle for instilling in me the value of reason and a sense of justice and mercy, especially in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.
At the end of that story, Holmes explains to Watson why he allowed the man who stole the notorious jewel to go free:
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies … I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now, and you make him a gaol-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”
That’s the sort of forgiveness required of Fitzwilliam Darcy if he is to accept George Wickham as his brother-in-law.
Other mystery heroes include Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and later Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. These detectives lived by a strong, but not strict moral code. Even the morally suspect Spade, who slept with his partner’s wife, had a line he would not cross. In The Maltese Falcon, he explains to Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he’s giving her up to the police for having killed Floyd Thursby:
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around — bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”
Compare this to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility finally revealing to her sister Marianne the secret that Lucy Steele had told Elinor, that Lucy was secretly betrothed to the man Elinor loved:
“Four months!—Have you known of this four months?”
Elinor confirmed it.
“What!—while attending me in all my misery, has this been on your heart?—And I have reproached you for being happy!”—
“It was not fit that you should then know how much I was the reverse!”
“Four months!”—cried Marianne again.—”So calm!—so cheerful!—how have you been supported?”—
“By feeling that I was doing my duty.—My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy.”
And now my favorite author: I discovered Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters in my freshman college year and kith called to kin. I was back in England in the 1920s and ’30s and there’s a curious parallel in Jazz Age and Regency fashions I would later recall (and also the importance of suitable marriages). There’s also a strong resonance in the moral code I would later find in Austen’s heroes.
The actual code that Bertie Wooster adheres to is “Never let a pal down.” The code manifests itself in wondrously wacky ways. He often finds himself engaged to completely unsuitable women but is too much the gentlemen to say no. And he usually finds himself in this situation because he’s trying to help out a chum or a relative, even to the point of facing thirty days in jail without the option, rather than allow his aunt to lose her valued chef Anatole.
In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie even ticks off Roderick Spode, a man of destiny modeled on Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists more commonly called the Black Shirts:
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
It should be explained that Spode’s followers wore black shorts.
When I read Elizabeth Bennet ticking off Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, I found a presentiment of Bertie.
“Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,” replied Elizabeth, “have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”
All my life I seem to have admired just the sort of authors who would one day prepare me to esteem and admire Jane Austen. She was in some strange way my reward. I could even argue Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics would lay the groundwork for the moral code that I would recognize in Austen. I could never have appreciated Austen without these authors and so Jane has to take a back seat to them. Curiously almost all were male and only one was concerned with the matrimonial prospects of young women. But somehow they all led me to appreciate Jane Austen when the stars aligned. She may not be my favorite author, but my favorite authors strangely led me to her.