How did I not know that Emma Thompson is married to Willoughby? I’m jumping in the middle of things, but I happened upon the fact that Emma is married to actor Greg Wise in a recent Telegraph article. I’m notorious bad about not paying attention to celebrity news. Well, good for her. I assume he’s nothing like the character he played, of course. Anyhow, back to the point at hand:
It’s not just about escaping back to the 18th century, to a land of petticoats and Regency toffs in breeches. Austen, like Shakespeare, still resonates because she tells us modern truths: that decent people end up in impossible situations through no fault of their own. And that if they are good (Emma Woodhouse), honest (Lizzie Bennett), and true (Fanny Price) there is a good chance it will all come right in the end. (Interestingly Claire Tomalin, Austen’s biographer, suggests she too may have suffered deep depression, which may have helped her to write so humanely about the complexities of emotional life.)
From the Bible onwards, people have looked to books to tell us how to live through adversity. And for those of us born prior to the escapes of YouTube, instant messaging and alcopops, medication through fiction was a habit we learned early. Comic novelist Jenny Colgan estimates she has read Little Women “something like 9,000 times”. “I use Little Women as a security blanket if I’m feeling down.”
There’s definitely a healing power to the escapism of reading. It’s taken me out of a lot of hard times, to the extent that I sometimes feel a little guilty about it, as if I’m burying my head in the pages in order to avoid harsher realities. But to be kind to myself, I think we all need that kind of escape sometimes. The problems will still be there, after all, when you’re done reading, but you might be a little less stressed and anxious, and a little more capable of dealing with them.
Not all books make good “comfort reading”, in my opinion. Right now, for example, I’m very much enjoying Hillary Martel’s Wolf Hall. It’s spectacular and challenging, but it’s not great for when I need solace. My go-to comfort books do include Jane Austen, but more regularly, Anne McCaffrey. Yes, I like dragons. Also Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. It’s not exactly happy, but it’s a completely different universe than the one my problems live in.