The healing power of Austen
We have always been advocates of the healing power of reading literature. Writer and author, Jojo Moyes, discusses how actress Emma Thompson overcame her severe depression through self-medication by immersing herself in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
As Emma Thompson reveals the work of Jane Austen saved her from depression, romantic novelist JoJo Moyes examines the healing power of literature.
I can’t have been the only one taken aback to hear that the apparently cheerful and pragmatic Emma Thompson suffered severe depression after the break-up of her first marriage, and to such a debilitating extent that, in her own words, she “should have sought professional help”.
But her choice of self-medication drew a huge nod of recognition, in this house at least. For Thompson was “saved” not by Prozac, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but by immersing herself in Sense and Sensibility, the Jane Austen novel she turned into an Oscar-winning screenplay. “I used to crawl from the bedroom to the computer and just sit and write, and then I was all right, because I was not present,” the actress and screenwriter said. “Sense and Sensibility really saved me from going under, I think, in a very nasty way.”
Obviously meeting the very handsome Greg Wise, starring opposite him in said film, and then marrying him might have provided a little balm to the soul too, but as anyone who loves books knows, fiction – and Austen especially – is a great remedy for the steeper humps of the human condition. In fact, so effective is Austen’s facility for helping people overcome adversity that she has spawned a sub-genre: books like The Jane Austen Book Club – in which characters improve their lives and overcome heartbreak through reading … um …Austen.
And 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. I know its moralising tone is highly unfashionable nowadays, but I find it totally comforting. Do the right thing, even when you don’t want to. Cut off your hair, and give away your Christmas breakfast; try and be the better person and all will be well. Or, if that doesn’t work, do exactly what Jo does and hide in a garret with a book and a bag of apples.”
Novelist Jess Ruston remembers devouring Laura Ingalls Wilder at age seven when her mother spent time in hospital. In fact, the Little House on the Prairie – that symbol of cosy family togetherness and self-sacrifice, seems to turn up in many people’s comfort lists. You don’t have to scratch the surface of those stories too hard to reveal the heartening element: no matter what the elements throw at you, love and fairness will win out. “It is the familiarity… a world where domesticity rules, which is somehow very comforting when things are a bit unsettled,” says Ruston.
But it’s not just about comfort and escapism. When Thompson was still shrouding herself in ex-husband Kenneth Branagh’s dressing gown, she was no doubt pondering literature’s other great gift: how to explain the inexplicable nature of human behaviour. Unrequited love, betrayal, hopes pinned and dashed; there is barely a character in Austen who navigates the choppy waters of love without at least getting their feet wet.
The bestselling book Reading Lolita in Tehran tells how Professor Azar Nafisi employed Austen, as well as Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov to teach her Iranian students – some of whom had never been allowed any contact with the opposite sex – to better understand the complexities of human interaction, especially that of love. How do you understand an attraction to the same sex if the mere mention of it is considered sedition? How do you explain infidelity to women who would be stoned for it? They found their answers in characters who lived decades prior to them, and many thousands of miles away.
You don’t have to be Freud to explain the popularity of books where love and decency win out. But a random and unscientific survey turned up other effective medicinal literature. Writer Janice Turner found herself reading Larkin when her father was hospitalised. She found his misanthropy “oddly comforting”. Award-winning writer Andrew Brown, (who confesses to memorizing The Wasteland when miserable at school), says PG Wodehouse helps him ward against “incipient self-pity and depression”. Using literature to feel better works best with “nice clean stereotypes; “What would Biggles do?” is more useful than “What would Hamlet do?” he says.
But there are certain characters who seem to hold a powerful hold when it comes to either escaping or ploughing on through troubled times. I have played: “What would Scarlett O’Hara do?” countless times, despite my life resembling that of a Southern Belle almost as much as it does that of a Jane Austen heroine. It doesn’t matter; she is fearless, resourceful and ultimately triumphant. She knows that “tomorrow is another day”. As a message, you can’t argue with that.
Emma Bovary is another character that comes up again and again as someone readers feel drawn to in crisis. “It’s her determination to run from reality. The love of beauty and younger men, her lack of guilt,” says bestselling cookery writer and television chef Trish Deseine. “Beauty, pleasure, and romance are what drive her. I find her amorality honest and true.”
But not everybody uses fictional characters in this way. Some, such as novelist Veronica Henry, use Bovary not as a role model, but to remind themselves which path not to take. “Emma is a reminder to appreciate what I have and not lust after what I haven’t – and the answer doesn’t lie in sex and shopping,” she says.
Sometimes the troubled and eventful lives we read about simply help us to put our own lives in perspective (and no, I don’t mean; Being Jordan, by Katie Price). I am well aware that Austen’s characters are fictional. But it is impossible to read Pride and Prejudice, and consider the lot of the Bennett sisters, or follow the travails of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price without feeling immense gratitude that one lives in an age where a woman’s future is dependent on so much more than her marital prospects.
Literature holds up a mirror: it may reflect your own life back at you, or it may show you something exaggerated, and harder to contemplate. One favourite book cited to me yesterday by a cancer survivor was the gruelling The Pianist, by Wladyslaw Szpilman “because,” she said, “it said I could get through it”.
Perhaps this is the clearest message; one that Thompson worked out, while miserable in her departing husband’s dressing gown, and others are just grasping right now. And it’s a message that literature delivers far more effectively than most self-help books, or the velvety tones of Oprah Winfrey: you will endure this, just as other people have endured it. And you can survive.
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