“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters.
If Jane Austen were alive and writing today, she would be sitting in her favourite chair by an upstairs window in the cottage near Chawton House in Hampshire where she, her sister Cassandra, and their mother lived by the grace and favour of their adopted brother Edward Austen Knight. And, she would have replaced her “little bit of ivory” with – her cellphone.
That is what I am writing on now. All thumbs! And what an inspiration that little bit of ivory is! The whole Bennett family, Mr. Darcy and all in Pride and Prejudice; Fanny and that colonizer and slave-owner Sir Thomas Bertram and his family in Mansfield Park; poor little Anne Elliot and her wayward Captain Wentworth in Persuasion; Emma, Mr.Knightly, Mr.Woodhouse, poor Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates in Emma; and that masterpiece of a story about stories, Northanger Abbey. Imagine such wonders of “strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow” she might have written, or that I might write, on this slightly more than two inches of silicon and plastic I now hold in my hand.
Well, perhaps not “manly”. Miss Austen, who always published as “A Lady”, was the most feminine of authors. Not in a frilly, bodice-heaving (entirely due to tight corsets), blushing pink and modestly downcast eyes sort of way, but with a watchful glance and a listening ear, wit and sharp tongue carefully modulated into some of the most brilliant English prose ever written, Miss Austen was both deeply conservative and radically feminist. (Yes, it is possible to be both). Comedy was her medium, and the relationship between the centrality of women (mothers, potential brides, and spinsters) and the rather peripheral necessity of men, was her constant theme.
I had the delight a few years ago of visiting a long lost cousin (with some old friends of mine from Australia) who lives in Alton, Hampshire, near Chawton, and discovered that she (my cousin) is married to Edward Austen Knight’s great-great-great-great grandson. My cousin-in-law lived in Chawton House as a boy, and now works in the house and grounds which was bought out by an American philanthropist and is now “. . . a Grade II* listed Elizabethan manor house . . . It is run as a historic property and also houses the research library of The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600–1830, using the building’s connection with the English novelist Jane Austen.”
Well . . . I’m a writer, and am related to someone who is married to a distant relative of Jane Austen, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. My sister is named after a river in Ireland and lives in Smithville, Missouri. Unlike Miss Cassandra Austen she is not named after a daughter of a Trojan king and a prophetess doomed never to be believed. My brothers are not clergymen, wealthy landowners or admirals in the Navy – but perhaps the less said the better. Other than my own bit of ivory, which contains what seems like the entire universe (as did Miss Austen’s novels), I’m a less ambitious storyteller. Instead of writing about the characters I see around me in my own life, and from them extrapolating a universe in a microcosm, I want to explore the universe and write about bits of it on Facebook.
But there’s more to storytelling than that. Much of what we call our knowledge of “the universe” or “the world” is an interaction between an experience of something “out there”, and our own interpretation of that “something” organized through language and narrative structure. Our experience of ourselves as conscious beings is also mediated through language and narrative. Myself as a “Self” mostly consists of memories, dreams and experiences tempered by my several speaking and non-speaking voices, and the stories I was brought up with, including Jane Austen. Our collective memories of the past are always shaped by our own narrative voice, which is in turn dependent on generations of stories, some of which we hardly know we know. This is as true of fleeting shadows of our long ago childhood as it is of the most authoritative histories.
The brilliance and danger of this storytelling is that our brains can make it up. Jane Austen’s prose seems to recall so clearly and crisply the reality of a world that existed more than two hundred years ago – but barely mentions the Napoleonic Wars through which she lived and in which her brothers fought. Barbara Tuchman and Margaret MacMillan describe with clarity and precision the months leading up to and immediately following the catastrophe of the First World War. But they have little to say about the histories of the working men and women in the great class struggles of the early twentieth century that Rosa Luxemburg lived through and writes about so powerfully, and from which so many of the casualties of that war – of all wars – come.
To get back to the “manly stuff”, reality and making things up becomes even more difficult when we turn to the dragon school of storytellers. Dragons almost certainly never existed (I’m hedging my bets here), although they are popular subjects of mythmaking right across Eurasia from the heroic tales of dragons and dragon slayers in Celtic and Germanic stories to the dragons of Imperial China. Heroes slaying monsters seem to be a nearly universal theme in storytelling around the world (cf Joseph Campbell), but dragons have a peculiarly iconic status. Their history is old, deep, rich and very detailed. And these stories continue to reverberate. Think of Smaug in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (visualized brilliantly in Peter Jackson’s otherwise disappointing film trilogy), and the memories of dragons memorialized in The Lord of the Rings. Or George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire immortalized in the TV series Game of Thrones. Whatever you might think of how the TV series ended, the dragons were spectacular.
But they don’t exist. They never existed. There are no dragon fossils, no DNA remnants of fire-breathing lizards, no first-hand witness accounts, no grainy footage of what might be dragons (as there is at least with Bigfoot). Someone somewhere made them up. And now they seem as real and as dangerous and as magnificent as all those manly heroic tales tell us they are. I love stories about dragons. I always did. But – what exactly are they?
Biology, archeology, genetics, physics and chemistry tell us fire-breathing dragons never existed, not could they. What possible configuration of the physics of heat and the chemistry of fire could exist within a living being? Jane Austen never wrote about them, nor likely cared much about them other than a vague knowledge of St.George and the Dragon as a founding English myth or fairy tale. Or perhaps passing by a local “Dragon of Wantley” or “St. George’s” Inn. It’s difficult (although not impossible) to imagine Mr. Darcy as a St.George. Two hundred years before Jane Austen Miguel de Cervantes made “tilting at windmills” the modern ironic commentary on heroes fighting monsters and giants in Don Quixote de la Mancha. But dragons and other monsters survived and live on in the amazing descriptive language, cinematography and special effects of storytelling magic in oral histories, books, video games, films and TV.
The difficulty lies in what Descarte’s “theatre of the mind” or Plato’s Cave has to do with reality. Do our stories exist independently of material reality? Obviously, sometimes they do as dragons demonstrate. Does a material reality separate from narrative structures, language or discourse even exist? Are we just making it up as we go along? Or do our stories, even stories about dragons, allow us to interact with and make sense of a cosmos otherwise indifferent to our existence? What role did a myth of St.George and the Dragon, and myths of heroism common to both Britain and Germany, play in galvanizing hundreds of thousands of young men to sacrifice their lives in the mind-numbing atrocity of 1914 to 1918. JRR Tolkien survived and went on to create Smaug, Sauron, hobbits and the mythic world of Middle Earth. George RR Martin created a more cynical, less linguistically rich world of flawed heroes and human monsters – and dragons.
Are dragons lurking on the outskirts of Austen’s world after all? Whole books, both fictional and non-fictional, have been written about where Heathcliffe went for three years in the middle of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. But what was Captain Wentworth doing after Anne was persuaded to reject him? Fighting the dragons of Napoleon’s navy while earning his place as a hero in Anne’s eyes, and getting rich in prize-money, while she languished in dutiful, useful oblivion, not even allowed to wait for him. Where did Mr. Darcy come from? And Mr.Knightly? In Sense and Sensibility Marianne, rebelling against the sensible Moated Grange her sister Elinor accepted with such quiet courage, finally found her hero in Colonel Brandon. Aside from a stint in the West Indies and his predeliction for rescuing young women in distress, we know nothing about him. Where were his dragons?
Or are our stories a series of conversations with the universe itself? Are we co-creators of the reality we all share? Is material reality simply the actualization of the mind of an observer? As Robert Lanza says in The Grand Biometric Design (2021):
Quantum mechanics consistently and accurately predicts how and where the basic particles of matter will appear, with the amazing revelation that prior to observation, they exist in all possible places at once—dwelling in a sort of blurry probability state that physicists call “an uncollapsed wave function.”
Material reality might well be simply a “collapsed wave function”, but, contrary to the story told by too many quantum physicists (most of whom are male), there is more than one observer. Just as there is more than one storyteller. Not all the observers are recognized. They often masquerade as “A Lady” with no particular story to tell. Like Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (as quoted in Maria Tatar The Heroine with 1001 Faces).
There are multitudes of observers everywhere and each has a story. Not all are heard or recognized. But all participate in our conversation with the universe that might, in fact, be how our shared reality is co-created. Consciousness and mind are not individual mechanisms in a mechanistic view of an individual brain. The stories themselves are always collective, told over generations by many individuals entangled with storytellers through time and space. Times and places. First mothers and grandmothers, then children. The narratives locate us and connect us. Even dragons have quite a lot to say about reality.