Hiding in Jane Austen

I hide from reality in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries.

A lifetime ago, when I was a little girl in the third grade, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times. And despite the dust and decrepitude that has settled over me in the intervening decades, I still recall that morning (oh!) so clearly. I vividly picture my mother, sitting on the right side (her side) of that ugly Nile green brocade couch in the living room, eyes glued to the old black-and-white TV, as she braided my long hair. I can almost hear the voice of the announcer (Walter Cronkite?), talking, talking, talking, as the mission ensued. I remember my dismay at having to leave to catch the school bus—a dismay that, for once, had very little to do with how much I disliked school or the fact that I wanted to concentrate on my upcoming birthday, just two days away. I recall the almost-contagious excitement of my teacher, Mrs. Dryer. And finally, I remember my mother describing to us children the wonderful gesture of the residents of Perth, Australia, who turned on every light in the city, hoping that Glenn would be able to see the illumination from space.

But beyond all my memories of that day, I recall a feeling of pride; intense pride, and hope. Hope for the future—my future, the future of my someday-children; the future of the world. Space, the final frontier….

The world has turned many, many times since the day of Glenn’s orbit, and the once-astronaut, later Senator, has passed on, while I have grown old and, well, beneath the L’Oreal, white-haired, not grey. But my spirit—my spirit has greyed. The pride I once felt in my nation has evaporated, bludgeoned from existence by undeclared wars and unending lies; by revelations of historical genocide; by horrific mass shootings; by the hypocrisy of generations of politicians; by watching miserably as the democratic experiment that was America crumbles in waves of divisiveness and burgeoning fascism. And despite the recent, magnificent photos from the Webb space telescope, the hope my child-self once experienced for the future has dwindled. Space exploration has done nothing to prevent the glaciers melting, the forests burning, while we remain trapped on this scorched pale blue marble, winging its way through the solar winds.

Depressive, I know. Grim. But grim is what I feel most mornings, as I scan the latest news coverage. Oh, there is the occasional heart-warming human interest story scattered here and there throughout the carnage. But the rare story of kindness or environmental protection fails to overwhelm the simple, unutterable awfulness of it all.

And so, unable to continue, I ditch both the reports and the TV (where breaking news might interrupt any pleasant viewing I manage to find) and pick up my books. Eschewing even my favorite, light-hearted cozy mysteries, I take refuge in tales written a century or two ago: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters; Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I escape to Avonlea and Pemberley; to Mansfield Park and Misselthwaite. I keep company with Anne-with-an-E Shirley, and young Mary Lennox. I worry not over the latest police brutality, but whether Sunday travel is really a permissible activity. I weep over the death of Anne’s firstborn, rather than children dead in a school shooting. I empathize with Jane Eyre’s inability to capture her visions in her paintings, rather than stress over how poorly my own written words convey my meaning.

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

When Covid was in ascendancy—when there were no home testing kits, no vaccines, and the only available masks were those we cobbled together from teeshirts and elastic and coffee filters—when we all dwelt in our separate spaces in lockdown, I hid in movies; specifically, superhero movies. The Avengers, Wonderwoman, Thor, Guardians…. Again and again, in 90 minutes, they saved the universe, the planet, their friends; struggling their way through battles, joking their way past villains. But watching movies palled; there are no superheroes to rescue us, and I can only suspend my disbelief so far, even for the purpose of respite and entertainment.

And so, now, as the world around me contracts and worsens; as forests burn and species dwindle; as the curtain is pulled back on revelation upon revelation of treasonous behavior by a former national leader; as blood and death are visited in my own backyard in such innocent venues as the mall where I shopped as a teenager and the park around the corner from my home–I hide. I hide in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries; that touch only lightly upon lies and hypocrisy and faithlessness and cruelty and wrongdoing. I hide in a gentler version of life that probably never, in truth, existed beyond those printed pages.

And it comforts me.

If this sad little missive appealed to you, you might also appreciate the post, “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on April 22, 2020.