I just started reading A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson, and found an interesting idea in the second essay, the one by Eudora Welty entitled "The Radiance of Jane Austen." While the bulk of the essay itself was interesting and well-written, it didn't really say much I hadn't already heard, or read, or thought about except her opening paragraph:
Jane Austen will soon be closer in calendar time to Shakespeare than to us. Within the reading life of the next generation, that constellation of six bright stars will have swung that many years deeper into the one sky, vast and crowded, of English literature. Will these future readers be in danger of letting the novels elude them because of distance, so that their pleasure will not be anything like ours? The future of fiction is a mystery; it is like the future of ourselves.
I confess I did the math, and Welty is right. Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817. Austen died 201 years after Shakespeare died. In 2018, it will be 201 years since Austen died. I'm not sure what this really means, though. On the surface, it seems to suggest the Austen's world is more similar to Shakespeare's than to ours, which isn't really a new idea. Her work is definitely more understandable to the modern reader than Shakespeare's plays and poetry are. I think Welty is saying that the further we get from Austen, the more inaccessible it will become. That may be, but the raw emotion of Shakespeare's greatest characters transcend the trappings into which the stories themselves are housed. Likewise with Austen's characters.
A few years ago I was rereading Mansfield Park and Henry Crawford's reading of Henry VIII struck me as worth noting. Why that play? It is hardly ever produced anymore, and yet there was something in it that caused Austen to choose it as the play Crawford read aloud from to Fanny when he was wooing her.
"Shakespeare," observes Henry Crawford, "is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct."
Edmund Bertram agrees: "No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare ...from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare,..."
These days, I would venture to say that Austen is a part of more people's constitutions that ever before. Certainly in my little corner of the blogosphere "everyone is familiar with Austen ...Her celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Austen."
I think what I like about the opening passage of the Welty essay is that it's an interesting factoid and one that could have a deeper meaning, or not. It's just been fun to wrestle with a bit.