By Jim Poling Sr.
An interesting anniversary passed virtually unnoticed last Sunday: the 204th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.
Austen, in the two centuries after her passing, became world famous for her novels interpreting and critiquing life among the British upper middle-class landowners of the late 1700s.
Her writings used literary realism in which the author tries to describe everyday life like it is and not how they imagine it as most fiction writers do. She is the acknowledged mistress of characterization, using her characters’ actions – not just their words – to show readers their true and complete characters.
Jane Austen is not here to describe our tragicomedic lives in North America in the first part of the 21st century. It’s not hard to imagine, however, the word pictures she would draw of Canadians and Americans.
Her Canadians might be shell-shocked characters wandering zombie-like in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change mutilating our wonderfully diverse northern regions.
I can imagine Austen’s biting irony when one of her Canadian zombies is stopped on the street and asked where she is going.
“I’m out looking for our leaders,” she says bewilderedly. “Have you seen where they’ve gone?”
Austen’s characters in today’s United States would be angry and unfocussed.
The U.S. is a country in civil war. It is not the civil war of the 1800s when men in blue uniforms and grey unforms fired muskets at each other. It is a civil war in which people with unbending blue views and hard rock red views are tearing the country apart.
America’s social problems grow and are not getting fixed because there is no truly functional government. Blind partisanship is so severe that it has shackled the federal government and many state governments.
Jane Austen surely would repeat one line from her novel Pride and Prejudice when writing about America – “keep your breath to cool your porridge.”
That famous line has been taken to mean Mind Your Own Business! Good advice because therein lies America’s greatest fault, and the fault of many of us.
That fault was glaringly evident earlier this month when President Joe Biden spoke from both sides of his mouth. One day he said the U.S, supports Cuban citizens’ “clarion call for freedom and relief” from its Communist government.
He was saying he favours the overthrow of a peoples’ government, yet just days before said U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan because the Afghan people have the right “to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
So, Afghans should be left alone to decide if they should be governed by Taliban, but Cubans wishing to overthrow their Communist government should be supported.
The U.S. has a habit of interfering in other countries’ business, resulting in tens of thousands of lost American lives in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan and other places.
Most often when we push our noses into someone else’s business we do not help them. We deprive them of the chance to learn by trial and error and from making their own mistakes. We take from them an opportunity to have pride in managing their lives.
One of the worst things about not minding our own business is what it does to ourselves. When you are knee deep into someone else’s business, you are neglecting your own.
Edward Weston, the famous American modernist photographer, once said:
“A lifetime can well be spent correcting and improving one’s own faults without bothering about others.”
The United States – in fact all countries and individuals – have enough faults to correct without getting involved trying to correct others.
Jane Austen’s work has a huge North American following today. One reason is that it remains relevant.
The class divides of the 1700s continue to exist today, although they might not be exactly the same. Divisions between the haves and the have-nots grow wider today, as do resulting different social norms.
Both her society and ours are heavily opinionated. Her characters form strong opinions based on parlour gossip. We form opinions based on social media gossip.
Minding our own business, and forming opinions based on proven facts, would go a long way to making our society a better one than Jane Austen’s.