Jane Austen: Bibliophile

Jane Austen: Bibliophile

I dedicate this post to Saint Wiborada of Saint Gall, Switzerland’s own patron saint of libraries and librarians. More on her below.

Saas-Fee, Valais, Switzerland

Here in the land of Helvetia, children have two weeks off from school in February to go skiing (I kid you not). My family has joined in this annual pilgrimage since moving here, and we spent last week in the idyllic mountain village of Saas-Fee, returning for a second year in a row. From the train station in Visp, it’s a somewhat nerve wracking bus ride, ascending about 5,250 feet to the plateau where the village is nestled amongst the peaks. Unfortunately, this year’s stay was not as relaxing and rejuvenating as the previous, my son being quite sick for the first several days, but it did bring me one priceless opportunity. I got to read. I got to read!!! Three glorious books! That is such a luxury for me right now. I hadn’t read a novel in almost an entire year, an intellectual drought unprecedented in my life. All my personal pursuits have been heavily curtailed as the demands of family and health have taken precedence over everything else.

We all have times in life when our hobbies are put on hold, but reading is more than just a leisurely indulgence for me. Like most writers, I was first a reader, and I really don’t know how to be one without the other.

Jane Austen was most certainly a bibliophile. This is a pretty universally acknowledged truth. Her letters reveal her tastes and habits, and her novels, her passion for reading. The first person defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, advocating the for women supporting women, or heroines supporting heroines (and aren’t we all our own heroines?), a few hundred years before it became a talking point, is ardent:

Watercolor Illustration by C.E. Brock, courtesy of Mollands.net
[Catherine and Isabella] called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss ———-?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. — “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

And she doesn’t stop there. Austen returns to this theme nine chapters later, not breaking the third wall this time, but instead utilizing her hero, Henry, to express succinctly and witheringly the shock and dismay that all bibliophiles experience when confronted by those unaccountable people who don’t enjoy reading: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While Northanger provides us with Austen’s most memorable and impassioned expressions of bibliophilism, her fervor pervades all her works. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy utilizes books to convey his earliest compliments to Elizabeth: “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Austen’s novels are peppered with references to contemporary fiction and poetry. The very titles Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice declare her engagement with contemporary literary discourse. Time obscures the degree to which her books critique the literature of her day. This goes far beyond the obvious parodying of gothic and sentimental fiction in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novels are rather like a teacher’s red pen all over the works of her predecessors, showing by example how stilted and farfetched the writers of 18th century were, and giving birth to the 19th century novel in the process. Without their inspiration and mistakes to compel her, it’s hard to imagine Austen creating the masterpieces she did.
Saint Wiborada from the Cimelia Sangallensia, c. 1430

In summation, it is really quite vitaI that I make the time to read. This last year’s hiatus is unacceptable. I need books, like I need nourishment, and not just those I read to my children. Reading aloud is lovely, but it doesn’t give my mind the scope it needs to soar away on words to distant lands. I’m determined to reclaim that space. Wish me luck! More than poor Wiborada had, I do hope, who was the first woman ever canonized by the Vatican. Born in the late 9th century to a wealthy family in present day Aargau, Switzerland, she and her brother joined the Benedictine community at the Abby of St. Gall following the deaths of their parents. I have visited the location several times, and it is magnificent. The complex includes an 18th century Rococo cathedral, one of my favorite in Switzerland, and a gorgeous library, designed by the same architect, housing the oldest collection of books in the country, some of the manuscripts dating back to the 8th century.

At some point in her early adult life, Wiborada was accused of something for which she underwent an Ordeal by Fire to prove her innocence. She was exonerated, but the experience was obviously traumatizing, and following it she chose to become an ascetic (a career path, it must be noted, that affords ample reading opportunity). She later petitioned the Bishop of Konstance to become an anchoress, spending four years in a cell near the church of St. George. In 891, she relocated to a cell next to the church of St. Magnus, where she spent the rest of her life. Known for healing and prophecy, she is said to have warned the orders at St. Magnus and St. Gall of an impending invasion by the Hungarians in 925. The priests secured the precious texts in caves and and went into hiding, but Wiborada refused to heed her own prediction and remained in her cell. The Magyars arrived in 926 and, upon finding Wilborada kneeling in prayer, cracked her head in two with a hatchet, resulting in her martyrdom.
Please enjoy the following short video about the library:

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