No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.
It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.
Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in Maine, not far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.
Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection, The Paradise of the World. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.
Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.
I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.
*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.
Cover photo: Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons