Some people may be surprised to know that I occasionally attend meetings of the Jane Austen society when I am in the Tampa Bay area (at least when I still had reliable transportation, but that is another story). I know of no Jane Austen appreciation society in Thailand, much less in the area of Chiang Mai, but among the books in the Legacy House there is a fine collection of Jane Austen’s seven completed novels in one (very large) volume.
As it happened, yesterday was not a particularly swell day for me, for a variety of reasons, and in the evening in particular I was feeling particularly glum, mourning the death of my grandfather . As it happened, the power went out before dinner and stayed out for at least a couple of hours. Not knowing when, or if, the power would return that night, I went home in the twilight as darkness came upon the small Thai village where I reside. My attempts to rest and keep quiet were unsuccessful, as soon after I got into my apartment a young lady came out giving two candles to each apartment dweller. Sadly, she had no matches or lighter (and neither did I), but she found one and came back so I had two lit candles to read by. And so I did, even though they made the apartment rather hot and stuffy.
I was hoping to finish Sense & Sensibility before the candles burned out, and I was hoping I would stay awake long enough to either blow the candles out and/or for the power to come back on so that the flame would not burn down my makeshift candlestick holder. In reading Jane Austen, one is struck by the fact that unlike what is typically called romance literature, the characters and their lives are bounded by realism of a specific kind–their own location and time. The fact that whatever comeuppance characters received is not contrived, but that the foolish Robert and the greedy John and Fanny Dashwood still end up with their inheritances at the end of the novel, means that Jane Austen’s moral universe is far more complicated than many of her imitators.
As a very complex person myself, I appreciate the complexity of that picture. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Victims of natural disasters are not more wicked people than the rest of us, but if we do not repent we will all suffer a horrible end. These times have been dark for many of us–myself personally, and people all over the world. The world seems to have gone mad, whether we are talking about creation in its earthquakes and tsunamis and tornadoes and floods, or whether we are talking about the world of human beings, with uprisings and rebellions and revolutions. This is not the first time, nor is it the last, that such events will come, but it reminds us that we live in a complex and unstable world that refuses to be simplified or reduced into neat little boxes.
Of course, people cannot be put inside neat little boxes either–all of us are too complex for that. We all are self-aware enough to seek our own self-justification, sensitive enough to realize we are both sinned against and sinning. We are all jumbles of inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes. The result of flawed people living imperfect lives in a deeply crooked and corrupt world is complexity. This is true even of good people, and is even more true of those who live more or less double lives, putting on an exterior veneer of righteousness while hiding their portraits of Dorian Grey deep within the recesses of their mind and heart, seeking if possible to forget the horrible truth themselves. We lie to others because we first lie to ourselves.
And yet the truth shines like a candle in the darkness, the light flickering over the pages of the books of our deeds, which we may often prefer remains in darkness, so that we can read by its light, and reflect upon the fragility of the lives we live, of the vulnerability of our advances, our technology. For if a little thing goes wrong, we are all back to candles and books and letters without the electrical power we need to run our computers and phones. And when we reflect on ourselves, we all leave a trace behind us in our lives, especially if we are lucky enough to have children and grandchildren to remember us after we are gone. We have not changed so much in two centuries, nor even two thousand years. For underneath it all, in our nature, we are all far more alike with everyone else who walks this earth as a human being than we are different, all of us complex shades of gray, leaving behind more questions than answers.
‘Tis a pity ’tis so, but ’tis so. In an imperfect world, we can only hope for restoration and redemption. Any wholeness and integrity we possess must come from another place rather than from within ourselves to begin with. Somehow the wisest among us have always realized that melancholy fact, whether they dealt with it quietly and stoically, complained about it, or mourned it. And it is death that brings that realization most sharply to light, for in the end, we seek the truth that springs all the way from the beginning.