I grew up in 1960s southern California. Back then, it seemed that rich and famous Hollywood stars were all around us, living everyday lives. For example, my father owned his own business, and the great Oscar-winning actress Bette Davis was his best customer.
My mother shopped in the same grocery store as Raymond Burr (of TV’s “Perry Mason” fame) and chatted in the check-out line with Barbara Eden.
As I grew up, I had some celebrity sightings of my own. While waiting for a table at a restaurant one night, I sat in the bar and hobnobbed with rock-and-rollers Meatloaf and Dee Snider. A couple years ago Jay Leno happily wished my son and me a Merry Christmas; and Rue McClanahan and I had a nice chat at a bookstore one summer afternoon.
My family and I have probably had more than our share of celebrity interactions; and though we’re all practical, hard-working people, we still got a kick out of coming home at night and announcing at the dinner table, “Guess who I saw in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store today?”
But then, who doesn’t like to meet famous people? And who doesn’t like to casually drop a celebrity name or two in everyday conversation at just the right time?
Jane Austen certainly enjoyed doing so—at least, she did through the characters in her books.
In Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot made the most of his connection to a noble branch of the family by going out of his way to tell everyone he was cousin to the Viscountess Lady Dalrymple and her daughter Miss Carteret.
When visitors came to call, Sir Walter ensured that . . .
. . . the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, [were] arranged wherever they might be most visible.
And into almost every conversation he worked in little references to his famous cousin, saying, “Our cousins in Laura Place,” or “Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret.”
Sir Walter lived in constant fear that he might say or do something to displease Lady Dalrymple, and thereby lose his status in society’s eyes.
Perhaps Jane Austen’s most famous name-dropper was Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. His veneration for his wealthy patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh peppered almost every conversation he had. Long before Lady Catherine make an appearance in the story, Mr. Collins freely announced there was no low to which he was not willing to sink to show his devotion to that honourable lady:
It shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship.”
Under Jane Austen’s skilled hand, we can see the pride Mr. Collins claims for himself just by knowing Lady Catherine. And we can sense the undercurrent of desperation in every encounter Sir Walter Elliot has with Lady Dalrymple.
But in real life, Jane Austen was not impressed with celebrity. She resisted all efforts to reveal her identity as the anonymous author of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Pride and Prejudice.
She even resisted capitalizing on the fact that the Prince Regent was a fan of her books.
It was the same way in her novels; characters who were decidedly not star-struck had the greatest impact on the rich and famous. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet didn’t see Mr. Darcy for the rich, influential man he was; she saw him as a human being—proud and arrogant, at first; kind and generous by the story’s end.
The same was true of Anne Elliot in Persuasion. When faced with the choice of visiting an old friend or joining her father and sister in chasing after Lady Dalrymple, Anne chose to keep her promise to visit her friend (and earned her father’s wrath in the bargain).
Can you think of other Jane Austen characters who refused to get weak in the knees after meeting a rich or powerful person?
How about you? Have you ever met someone famous? Please dish a little and tell us who!