How Jane Austen Made Me a Better Writer
Returning to high school after nearly a year as a teenage dropout runaway, I had good intentions about attending classes and completing assignments, two resolutions I’d failed at in the past. With every new school year, I’d vow to be a model student, but by October of every year since 7th grade, I was skipping classes, chugging beers in the girls’ room, and rolling joints in the back of science class.
I’d discovered that I could do whatever I liked if willing to face the consequences, and what I liked to do was act with contempt for authority. Maybe that idea had come to me from a book, or maybe it was just my bad blood.
I wanted to go to college. I loved to read, longed to discuss books, and indulged in writing angsty poetry, but school had been disappointing and too regimented to bear.
On my first week back from being a runaway, I went looking for some of my favorite novels at the library, intending to bring them home to re-sharpen my wits. Here were old friends — Dostoevsky, the Brontës, and Austen. In the stacks, though, Austen’s Emma stuck out its snobby tongue at me.
I’d adored all Austen’s novels except this one, and this one I’d despised, incredulous that the brilliant storyteller and satirist of Pride and Prejudice had also written a novel that was so entirely odious.
Emma, as I recalled her, was bossy, arrogant, and unlikeable. She thought she was entitled to do what she liked, and what she liked was to run the whole town; Austen told me right from the get-go that Emma and her family were “first in consequence there. All looked up to them.” Meaning, Emma was a snob. It was like a whole book about one of the annoying Mrs. Bennet-type characters in Austen’s other books, characters who were funny for a couple of scenes, but who certainly couldn’t carry a whole novel. There was no smart, sassy protagonist like Elizabeth Bennet for me to admire. There was only this stupid, spoiled girl Emma who stuck her nose into everyone’s business and always thought she was right.
The book was without merit.
Still, the time I’d spent as a teenage runaway, working minimum wage jobs and trying to avoid my boyfriend’s…