Word from Wormingford

by
21 March 2007

Ronald Blythe on the far-from-Hollywood world of Jane Austen

WHEN I serve for the Vicar at Little Horkesley, I kneel on the cracked tomb of one of Jane Austen’s relatives, a Mrs Knight who married again and came our way.

She comes into mind as the great costume extravaganzas are about to burst upon us. The novelist’s little world will be filmically (and, let us admit, enjoyably) inflated to a degree that she would have found unrecognisable. Her countrywomen will wear dresses, ride in carriages, and dwell in rooms which to them would have been beyond the dreams of avarice.

Those who do not understand Jane Austen say that her stories are really about class and money; but they are really about virtue. It is hard to screen virtue. Mr Knightley has a claim to be English literature’s most virtuous character. Should he, like Mr Darcy, take a swim in the film, and become just a visible man, what will happen to the plot?

Jane Austen herself was resolutely segregated from the scandal of her fiction when she died. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral on 18 July 1817, her funeral taking place in the morning so as not to disturb the services. There is no mention of her trade on the stone, simply her dislike of “enthusiasm in religion”, or the Methodists.

Like millions of viewers, I will be entertained by the gifted travesty of her intentions and go back to her pages, recalling what E. M. Forster once said, when he acknowledged “the measureless content when I drag one of these shy, proud books to the centre of my mind”.

My willows are greening and are filled with birds. Some trees are so ancient that they reel about and give little woody screams, and shed logs. “Mind your head, we are coming down.” During March, I can look right through them from the studio window and see Tom’s reservoir with its flashing water-birds and smart edges.

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The three village churches are jewel boxes, each containing its amassed reflections, its particular brightness. The bells ring clearly; the grass is new. Lent and its contradictions are everywhere. On the one hand, the grim desert, on the other, the Benedicite with its catalogue of natural experiences, its thankfulness for everything.

Lent is a time for taking stock, I say from the pulpit, not only of what surrounds us, but of ourselves; and I continue virtuously on the problems of not being quite well and not quite happy. And then about the loneliness of God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening, and there is no Man to chat to. As George Herbert and other writers told us, our sense of our non-fittedness to walk with God is a great problem for him, as well as for us.

Another problem for those who have to preach on Lent in the same spring-filled building year after year is to give some idea of what desert aloneness can do to the soul. Everything is against it. “The world, the flesh, and Satan dwell Around the path I tread,” we sing, and think of primroses.

I found a badger-slide. The badgers slide down a ditch on one side of the lane and scramble up the opposite bank, leaving behind the kind of worn dirt tracks that we as children achieved with our bottoms. Badgers (Meles meles) are alarmingly large, and the vertical black and white stripes down their faces make them look like Wimbledon fans. Sometimes I listen to their grumpy arguments at the back of the house.

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