I’m a couple chapters in to On Reading by Patricia Meyer Spacks and I am loving this book! I want to tell you about the chapter on rereading Jane Austen. What a delightful chapter it is too!

Spacks wonders what it is about Jane Austen that “everyone” rereads her and why people don’t reread Dickens or George Eliot or other great novelists quite like they do Jane. Of course there is no definitive answer to this and Spacks doesn’t really try to answer it because “everyone” is going to give a different explanation.

While traveling in China in 1980 Spacks met a young woman who was fluent in English and told her she loved English novels. Spacks asked who was her favorite? Jane Austen without a moment’s hesitation came the reply. The woman said she liked Austen for her irony, wit and grace.

In New Haven Connecticut, Spacks met a group of Holocaust survivors who met regularly to read Austen aloud to each other. They read the books over and over. To them, Austen represented civilization.

After the last encounter, Spacks reread Emma and, perhaps influenced by the New Haven group, saw in the book for the first time how in some ways it really is about civilization as well as moral development. The influence of experience between readings of a book is one thing Spacks finds recurs over and over in rereading. One is and isn’t the same person who read Emma the last time. Our past reading informs our present reading, our past self informs our present self, but there have been layers added:

let me suggest that the experience of rereading creates a palimpsest of consciousness. A manuscript that has been written on over and over, retaining traces of each earlier stage: that’s what our minds become in relation to Emma, or any other literary work repeatedly encountered. Our past readings inform our present ones; our past experiences inform our interpretations.

And maybe because she reread Pride and Prejudice for her rereading project, she noticed, for the first time how rereading makes an appearance in the book itself and is vital its outcome. Elizabeth reads and then rereads Darcy’s long letter multiple times. It is through her rereading, Spacks, suggests, that she is able, to change her view of Mr. Darcy:

She wanders the lane for two hours, reading and pondering, ‘giving way to every variety of thought, reconsidering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important.’

The rereading of Darcy’s letter, says Spacks, “becomes an adventure in self-knowledge.” Spacks also suggests that Austen later hints, when Darcy tells Elizabeth that he hopes she has destroyed the letter because he dreaded her having the power to read it again since he said some things in the letter “which might justly make you hate me,” the outcome of Elizabeth’s reading and rereading could have been different. The outcome depended on what Elizabeth as a rereader brought to the text of the letter.

Interesting, yes? I’ve never managed to pinpoint it, but every time I read Pride and Prejudice I always worry that maybe something will happen and Darcy and Elizabeth won’t fall in love. Maybe I am unconsciously picking up on the things that Spacks discusses about the letter. Not sure. Will have to reread Pride and Prejudice and find out.

What I am sure of is that if you are an Austen rereader you will want, at the very least, to read the “A Civilized World” chapter in On Rereading.

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