I became acquainted with Lori Smith when she wrote her first book, A Walk With Jane Austen. Our association has continued with her new book, The Jane Austen Guide to Life. (Read my review here.) Please welcome Lori as I talk to her about her most recent writing experience. I hope to meet her, as well as many other Janeites, at the JASNA meeting in New York this fall:
Hi Lori! What were your reasons for writing this book as your follow up to A Walk With Jane Austen?
You know, I didn’t expect to write another Jane Austen book, so this book, which was actually my editor’s idea initially, came as a great gift and a surprise. It covers some of the same material as A Walk with Jane, but from a completely different viewpoint. While A Walk with Jane was so deeply personal and so much about my journey, this book steps back and looks at how Austen would advise women today if she could. I took everything we know about her life and all the wonderful stories she gave us, and tried to ferret out how she might guide us today.
For those already members of the cult of Austen, this isn’t a tough sell, but I’m sure it will be for some. I mean, really, a woman who lived two hundred years ago, who wouldn’t understand modern dating, tweeting, texting—can she really have helpful advice?
But the thing is, we adore Austen for her lovely stories. She understood people, what motivated them, their faults and foibles. As one reviewer commented on Sense and Sensibility, she had “a great deal of good sense.” Her good sense is so welcome today, and still so useful. The issues she dealt with—fame, money, heartbreak—are the same ones we face today. I think she can help us bring back some of the graciousness of the time she lived in, help us imbue our own lives with grace and good sense.
What about today’s society would scandalize Jane Austen the most?
I’m sure it would be sex. There was plenty of raunchy behavior in Austen’s era, but it wasn’t on display the way it is now, in movies, TV shows, magazines. And it’s become so very casual. I don’t think she would know what to make of that.
What changes would she like most?
Well, she wrote in one letter about not knowing what to do about a new gown, and said “I wish such things were to be bought ready made.” (In Austen’s day, you had to buy fabric and then work with a dress-maker.) So I think she would love how easy and affordable fashion has become. (Not that she cared overly much about fashion.)
But I think she would be happiest that singleness has become a viable option for women, that women can work and earn their own keep and don’t have to be dependent on family or have to marry to survive. I think that would thrill her. She herself never married, and even with the income from her writing, was financially dependent upon her brothers.
On a personal level what advice from Jane meant most to you, and why?
This time around I really appreciated her perspective on the need to be thoughtful about romance—two concepts that don’t always go together in our world. And as someone who has lived with chronic Lyme disease for more than a decade, her own journey through a lengthy and mysterious disease touched me.
But every time I come back to Austen, more than anything else, I’m astounded by her joy. She celebrated the world, relished in it, brought so much energy to it. She laughed as much as possible, I’m sure, but her joy was deep as well, loved a quiet evening by the fire or sitting and watching the flow of the tide. If I could take one thing from Austen, it would be that joy and effervescence.
As a child, Lori Smith’s mother had to pay her to read books. So it’s a bit ironic that she now gets paid to write them. Lori feels connections to Austen on many levels—as a writer, a single woman, an Anglican, and as someone struggling with a mysterious chronic illness. For her last book, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love, and Faith, Lori spent a month in England tracing Austen’s life and works. Readers voted to give that book the Jane Austen Regency World Award for best nonfiction.
Her writing has also appeared in Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, Beliefnet.com, Skirt!, and Today’s Christian Woman. Lori lives in Northern Virginia with her sweet but stubborn English lab, Bess.