Claire Black: ‘People will try to convince you that Jane Austen was tragic, but don’t listen’

Claire Black
Claire Black
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I HOPE you realise just how much self-restraint it’s taken to start this column with a sentence that doesn’t contain the words “truth”, “universally” or “acknowledged”.

Unless you’ve had your bonnet tied excessively tight, you’ll be aware that Pride And Prej, as we lovingly refer to it in our house, celebrates its 200th birthday tomorrow. Jane Austen actually wrote it 10 years before. Her second novel, she called it First Impressions (which sounds vaguely like a boarded up hairdressers at the bottom of a tower block), but it was unceremoniously knocked back by publishers until a charlatan gave her the princely sum of £110 for it.

I love Jane Austen. I confess I’m not sure how anyone who enjoys novels could feel any other way. (For those who don’t like novels I turn to Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”) I mean what’s not to love about a book described as having a “gay astringent buoyancy”?

Austen only wrote six novels before her death at the age of 41. There are those who claim that they “merely” offer insight into the lives of middle and upper class women. Well, they do, and brilliantly. And what’s wrong with that? But that’s not all they do. Austen is too ironic and satirical for that, too bold and savage.

I was a teenager when I first read P&P and I’ve read it several times since. (I’m not going to embarrass myself by telling you how many times I’ve watched the Ehle/Firth spectacular). Every time there’s something new, something more.

I haven’t decided how I’ll celebrate tomorrow, but I do like the sound of the 12-hour internet readathon organised by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Yes, Austen is a brand. Yes, there are a hideous number and variety of spin-offs from her slender oeuvre. Yes, people will try to convince you she was a tragic, homely, thwarted figure. But don’t listen. Austen claimed the novel was the literary form in which “the greatest powers of the mind” were illustrated and she’s a fine example. Replying to a patronising suggestion that she might best use her talents to write a historical romance, she was deliciously firm: “No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way.” There’s something in that for all of us.

‘GLASGOW 2014 is looking for up to 15,000 of Scotland’s friendliest people to become volunteers” trumpets the Commonwealth Games website. It doesn’t say “asylum seekers need not apply” but it might as well, because those going through the asylum process aren’t permitted to work – and that is one of the criteria for would-be volunteers stipulated by Games organisers. Asylum seekers can volunteer elsewhere and many do, using their skills, building their self-esteem and finding a toe-hold in their new community and country. What a pity the Games won’t play a part in that. Come on Glasgow 2014 – think again.

I MAKE no bones about it: I am a fan of Gareth Malone. Who knew that singing in a choir was such an emotional rollercoaster? I haven’t been in one since I was forced to be (ah, school), but I’m tempted by the collaboration between Love Music Productions and the Usher Hall. Their mission is “to inspire Edinburgh to sing”. Their aim is get 250 members. The first rehearsal takes place on February 5 and it’s open to anyone who wants to join. Best thing: no auditions. Even I can do that.

Twitter: @Scottiesays