A retreat to the 19th century brings more clarity and insight

Stress is everywhere — even in Costa Rica. Some days when “the world is too much with us,” as Wordsworth observed, I retreat to the world of Jane Austen. I have read all of her novels, some more than once, save “Northanger Abby,” which I never was able to find. Her books have been in my library so long that by now the pages are pale brown around the edges with yellowish age spots.

I decided to re-read “Persuasion,” partly because it has been so long and because I found it one of her most difficult books. I have already learned two things that I didn’t know during my first read: first, Ms. Austen is probably the reason I write long sentences, and second, she has a risqué, as well as satirical, bent to her writing.

I learned both reading the following sentence which is about the ne’er-do-well, now dead brother of the Musgrove sisters:

“He had in fact, although his sisters were doing all they could for him by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

Of course, times have changed and language has changed, and maybe Ms. Austen didn’t mean what I think she meant. But I enjoy visiting the time when manners and society, dinner parties and dancing — and matchmaking — were important pursuits of the gentry in search of a happy life (with the help of many servants, of course).

I have tried recently to imagine what it would be like living a half mile under the surface of the earth for 69 days. I would rather be transported to the 18th century for the same time — even as a servant.

On the other hand, going back to the early 1960s via watching “Mad Men” on TV is not something I find as a nice escape. Like other women who lived and worked in New York in the 60s, I find it painfully historically correct and don’t care to be reminded of what I experienced. As a writer for a public relations company, I wrote medical news for women, and I was a rebel, even for New York, even in fashion. I was the first to wear a pants-suit to the office. Miniskirts were accepted, but in 1965, pants suits appeared and disappeared in Saks and Macy’s in a matter of days. I bought probably the only one they sold – a smart grey and white herringbone that was perfect for the cold weather. My boss was shocked, but I persuaded him that he could not justify accepting mini-skirts and not pantsuits. After all, they also were the current fashion. (I didn’t tell him they had come and gone.)

It was the custom then to go out for drinks and even night clubbing after work. One night a group of friends and I went to a disco, and I was not allowed to enter because I was wearing the pantsuit. Mini-skirts were okay, so I went to the car and removed the trousers and returned in my jacket which was about the length of a mini-skirt, and danced the night away.

Now I understand why Jane Austen’s novels were read and praised, but not wildly popular until the end of the 19th century, long after her death in 1817. It was probably too soon for women who had lived through that era to re-visit it.

Although different, the codes of behavior that were imposed on women were strict in both the 1960s and early 1800s. Remembering my own experience in the 60s, I have a feeling that a number of women in Austen’s day broke the rules, too – even the women who were part of what was considered “polite society.”

Meanwhile the one bit of present-day good news is that all of the 33 miners got out of their underground confinement alive and safe It was possible thanks to the whole-hearted cooperation of the best qualified experts throughout the world, wherever they hailed from, whatever their religion or politics. Let’s hope it is a lesson to us that problems can be solved with cooperation and without blame, war and contention – then present day life would not be so stressful.

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