Category Archives: Jane Austen

My Jane Austen Moment


This is an excerpt from Zoe Taylor’s Story: Confessions of a Cigarette Addict

Chapter 19 – Jane Austen in the Park

I felt so free. Women were still in arranged marriages, having their feet bound, and in other male-dominated situations all around the world, but not in America. We were equals with our men. We had the pill. Surprise babies were a thing of the past. We could smoke cigarettes, go to college, have jobs. We could go wherever we wanted to go and do whatever we wanted to do. What a privileged time in which to be born. We could wear jeans and sit cross-legged on the ground and get high and read books all day, and eat out in restaurants whenever we could afford to. We did not need our father’s brother’s, uncle’s, boyfriend’s, husband’s permission to do any of these things. What would Jane Austen think? I picture the clothes she had to wear, the socially orchestrated life she had to live.
I’m in the park by the rose garden sitting on the brick stairs at the end of the brick walk, just enjoying the warm sunniness of the day and the smell of cut grass and roses. I’m wearing an embroidered Indian white on white top of lightweight cotton and my khaki carpenter jeans with the little loop for a hammer. My white Dr. Scholl’s sandals are thrust out in front of me. I’m resting on my elbows, catching a few rays. I turn and open my eyes and I see Jane Austen walking towards me down the garden path drenched in dappled summer sun and shadows filtered through the old maples and oaks that line the path. She doesn’t see me yet. She seems to float down the brick walk in her long skirted dress, head high, back perfectly straight. She has slipper-type shoes with low heels. They are off-white with a bow on the front. Her dress is in the Greek style, empire waist, loose skirts flowing softly to the tips of her shoes. It looks like an everyday dress, cream background, small floral design, maybe roses, in pinks and greens, perhaps a chintz. The dress has a V-neck with a wide creamy cotton collar, spotless, and sleeves just above the elbow with a crisp creamy lace edge. She has the handles of a woven handbag twined around her gloved right hand. It’s one of those small pouch-type bags, pulling on the handles closes the top of the bag. Her hair is brown, piled atop her head, no loose ends. She has a summer straw picture hat on her head, pink and green ribbons around the brim, trailing down her back. A puzzled expression crosses her delicate features. She doesn’t recognize her surroundings.
She sees me and her puzzlement increases momentarily before she takes control of her expression. In spite of her control, I can see that she is scandalized. I remember I am braless. Perhaps, though, that is the least conspicuous of my transgressions.
“Good morning, Ms. Austen,” I say.
“Where am I she says?” forgetting her usually excellent manners.
“You’re not really here,” I say, “you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was somewhere that made me very happy,” she says, “I wouldn’t want to get lost.”
“Where were you? Was it heaven? What was it like?” I ask.
“Oh we’re not allowed to talk about that,” she says.
“Please sit down. Sit down here on the steps with me.” I say, moving down a few steps to make room for her big dress. Maybe we could have a conversation.”
She is not overly fastidious. She sinks gracefully to perch on the top step. She looks me over.
“My dear,” she says, “what are you wearing. I have never seen such clothing. Pants on a women! Where are your undergarments?”
“Call me Zoe, Ms Austen”, I say, “This is the year 1969, and my friends all dress like this. We’re members of a large social movement called ‘hippies’.”
“1969?” she repeated astounded, “America? Hippies?”
Her eyes started to glaze over.
“We have a commercial for cigarettes that says ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’ We are also in the middle of a social revolution called the “Women’s Liberation Movement’,” I say, “I got you here to see what you think of our new freedoms.”
“Cigarettes? Commercial? Baby?” she echoes, still not focusing as I would have liked.
“Cigarettes are tobacco rolled in paper,” I tell her, “a commercial is an advertisement and, since women can smoke cigarettes openly now and they once could not the ad is speaking to women. Baby is modern slang, used to show how cool and hip women are now.”
“Cool?” she says, “Hip?”
“Never mind,” I say, I really just wanted you to notice how free we are. We have a pill. If we take it everyday we don’t get pregnant. We can have as many lovers or as much sexual intercourse as we like because we are protected as long as we remember to take that pill. We don’t have to wear skirts all the time and we don’t need the protection of a man. We can come and go as we like, even have an education and a career.”
She thinks, taking in all I have said.
“My dear Zoe,” she says, “you are not as free as you imagine. Given the nature of some men, who can be as evil as the Devil, I think you will find that total freedom for women is a myth. And while the idea of an education for women is wondrously marvelous, and even having projects that occupy the mind is a concept I can grasp, a woman’s reputation will always be important and must be guarded at all times. Women, like men, will never be totally free. Free to do what? To be low and depraved. Sexuality, free of love is an abomination leading to the basest kinds of behavior.”
I didn’t argue, although this encounter had not gone quite as I expected. Apparently Jane did not envy my freedom as much as I had hoped she would. I just gave myself a knowing little “I know better” smile and made my politest good-byes. I was satisfied with the contrast between our situations, certain that I was infinitely more sophisticated and that modern women should have knocked the socks off of Ms. Jane Austen. All of her warnings were just anachronistic (excuse me) “bullshit”. (She would have frowned over that vulgarism, but, to underline my point, I was free to say it.)
I stood up, took one last whiff of the roses and walked home, by myself.



Nora Ephron: Our Jane Austen and Our Sister

Nora Ephron just left us at the age of 71. She is a famous person who lived a real life, a quiet life, with family and friends and work and all of the choices that her financial success gave her. In a way she could have been our sister. She was a child of World War II, born in New York City just before the attack on Pearl Harbor (May 19, 1941).

Although Nora seems down-to-earth, she did not grow up like the rest of us. She grew up in Beverly Hills, California with two screenwriter parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote scripts for movies I watched in theaters when I was a tween. Nora has three sisters; Delia and Amy, both screenwriters; and Hallie, a journalist. She had a life like the ones we read about in our Hollywood magazines, although her parents apparently liked their cocktails a bit too much and this sometimes made life less than idyllic.
She was married three times so, apparently, she lived through emotional ups and downs like all of us do. She had two boys by her second husband, who was also famous. He was Carl Bernstein, Watergate journalist. Her boys are Jacob, 21 and Max, 20. Her first husband was Dan Greenburg and her current husband is Nicholas Pileggi, who is also famous because he wrote Wiseguys which later became Goodfellas.
Nora Ephron is perhaps our 21st century Jane Austen. Jane had only one sister, Cassandra, and of course did not grow up in any British equivalent of Beverly Hills because there wasn’t one. But both wrote what may seem at first glance to be fluffy romances, but which, as we live with these creations, become windows on the culture of an age.
Jane Austen wrote books, which perhaps gave her more scope for her talent with language. She could be detailed and witty and she gives us great insight into the lives of “well-born” women in England at the time. She writes what she knows and she makes no attempt to give us a comprehensive glimpse of all women in Britain, because she was never in a position to know anything about women outside her social class. She lived a live that was protected by convention and by family and could have been frustratingly lacking in scope, but she gave us her wonderful books.
Well Nora, also lived a life that was circumscribed by her upbringing. She grew up in a family of writers. How many of us do that? One sister described dinners at the family house as unfolding like a session at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker fame. At my family table there was lots of laughter, some “fork” attacks, but very little that would pass as wit. She went to Wellsley College. She had a early, very desireable and successful career in journalism in New York City.  She wrote about us, about men and women in the second half of the 20th century. She wrote about romance and she wrote about our culture. We are as at home in her creations as Jane Austen’s readers probably were in hers.
Yes, her movies are slick and beautiful and seemed a bit “fluffy” the first time we saw them, but they touch us somewhere we don’t need to examine with our intellect. They may be guilty pleasures, but they hold up. We can watch them over and over again, especially, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Three other successful films are Silkwood, Julie and Julia, and When Harry Met Sally. Most of her films are probably chick flicks, but I’m betting that Jane Austen’s books are mainly late 18th –  early 19th  century chick lit.
Nora died back in NYC where her life began. She lived on the West Side. Some said that her movie You’ve Got Mail(which was a rewrite of The Shop Around the Corner)  was a kind of love letter to the neighborhood and a warning about what it was becoming.
Well Nora, I, for one, will miss you and I will remember you and I know that many more people would say exactly that same thing. The brave way you left us is duly noted also. Rest in peace.