Sharing a quiet sherry with Miss Austen
In Cocktails with Miss Austen, writer Elizabeth Davis talks about having "Jane on the brain" as she guides a spirited group of young American students through the works of Jane Austen and E.M. Forster (someone else who had Jane on the brain) during an eventful summer term in England.
After many weeks supervising her young charges (sometimes with much hilarity), Ms. Davis would no doubt enjoy a few quiet moments to share a cocktail with Miss Austen. But what would the two talk about? We asked her to describe how that conversation might go.
Over a semi-dry, nutty Spanish Oloroso sherry, I would hope to share a few moments with Jane Austen in the garden at the Jane Austen's House Museum, seated in the corner near the perennial bed adjacent to the hedge. We might talk about the beauty of Chawton in spring, and we might find ourselves talking about friendships, how they figure in her novels, and how she came to write the beautiful, honest friendship of Mrs. Smith and Anne Elliot and the elegance and charm of their remarkable conversation.
I may confess that one of my favorite Jane Austen characters is the exuberant, lovely Marianne Dashwood, especially in the scene when the family is forced out of their beloved home, Norland Park, and the distraught Marianne laments their departure by praising the vistas she shall miss, the grounds, and the turning trees, wherein Elinor simply replies, "It is not everyone, my dear Marianne, who has your passion for dead leaves."
I might muster the courage to ask Jane if she felt a special alliance with any of her characters—perhaps Catherine Moreland, the young writer of Gothic romances, or the astute, sometimes impatient Emma? I’d tell her a favorite quote of mine is from Emma - "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." This would be my transparent attempt to roll the ball in the autobiographical direction. My guess is that Miss Austen would simply smile, nod, and comment on how sad it was that the garden trellis needed mending.
What would Jane say if she visited me in the US? I imagine she’d remark:
"It is very difficult sometimes for the prosperous to be humble.
All the same, many can be agreeable."
Elizabeth Davis is a Lecturer Emerita at UC Davis, and she continues to teach there in the summers. Her articles, stories, poems, and book reviews have appeared in a number of newspapers, journals, and anthologies. A former news reporter, she has now returned to the business of writing commentaries in various publications such as the East Bay Times.