Bookstores are glutted with books concerning Jane Austen. Many of them are bad, which means the occasional jewel risks being overlooked. A Walk with Jane Austen is a jewel. It combines genres-a bit of spiritual memoir, travel diary, and examination of Austen's life and work-to raise questions about grace, romance, family, community, and calling. Not a bad Valentine's Day gift for a woman who follows Jane.
Lori Smith is a freelance writer who has worked for several Christian ministries and Publishers Weekly. Her book describes a summer trip that took her to Oxford to study. There she met Jack, a fellow student, and began what she hoped would be a romance. After Oxford, Lori traveled around England in the steps of Austen, writing the journal that became the heart of this book.
WORLD: You didn't read Jane Austen until college, and then her books captured your imagination. What was their appeal?
SMITH: I read Pride and Prejudice first, and it was one of those wonderful reading moments-staying up late over Christmas break at my grandparents' house, completely captivated. I think originally it was the romance that got me, but over the years I read all the books again and again, and now understand the substance-her wit and humor, the pitch-perfect dialogue, the characters we still recognize, the importance of moral character in her stories. She wrote 200 years ago, but we still get her stories today; many readers (myself included) feel a deep connection I'm not sure I entirely understand.
WORLD: As a single woman, how do you most identify with Austen?
SMITH: I find it intriguing that she wrote these wonderful romantic stories but never married. She had the opportunity to, at least once, when family friend Harris Bigg-Wither proposed. Originally she accepted him, but reconsidered and withdrew her consent in the morning. There was money, but no love, and for Jane that would never do. She seems to have been very happy with her single life. She had time to write, and loved her family, and loved being an aunt-she told fairy stories and occasionally guided her nieces and nephews on spiritual things and gave her nieces advice on love and marriage. But I sense a tension there, one I understand. It's impossible to read her stories and not think that while she loved her life, she hoped for romance.
Her stories also help readers understand what's really important in marriage (and in life)-being humble, being willing to be confronted and recognize your faults, willing to change.
WORLD: What did you discover about Austen's faith?
SMITH: Austen's faith was very important to her, and I think gave her the solid moral foundation her stories are built on. She wasn't comfortable talking about it the way we are today-her nephew wrote that she wanted to live it out, rather than discuss it-but I think it is evident in a gentle way in her stories. In some way, they could all be said to be stories of repentance. Darcy and Elizabeth have to recognize their pride, Marianne her selfishness, Emma her propensity to be unkind.
Austen came from a family that for generations was serious in living out its faith, during a time in which the Church of England was largely corrupt. Her father, grandfather, brothers, and nephews were all rectors in the Anglican church and chose to quietly live out faithfulness in their parishes. She herself left behind three beautiful Evening Prayers that I think capture my own theology better than I could.
WORLD: Hoping for an adventure and perhaps romance, you decided to visit places in England that were significant to Austen. How did seeing those places change or enrich your reading of her books, and how did meeting Jack and having a budding relationship affect your writing of A Walk with Jane Austen?
SMITH: It was wonderful to be in the places where she imagined the stories taking place-to walk through the fields around Steventon where we know she walked, to see Bath in the cold rain, to walk around the gardens and estates in Derbyshire and understand the grandeur of Pemberley. And to sit in the pews at St. Nicholas where she worshipped. It deepened my connection to her as a writer.
Meeting Jack at the beginning of the trip left me wandering around Austen's countryside thinking about love, wondering whether my life would turn out more like her books, with their romantic conclusions, or her life, in which she was perhaps disappointed in love. I was already planning to write the book, but Jack provided a means for reflecting on all those themes in Austen's writing and life.
WORLD: You describe yourself as shy. How hard was it to write down for public consumption what you were thinking?
SMITH: It was very hard at times-[I was] incredibly vulnerable. Sometimes I still want to take it back. But I don't really know any other way to write. It can be tough to find the balance between sharing enough and sharing too much, but if you don't expose yourself a little, readers have nothing to connect with. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I hear from someone who says, "I thought I was the only one who felt that way!"
WORLD: You make a list of traits you hope to find in a man. It ends with this: "He'll be normal-someone I could actually introduce to my non-Christian friends without cringing." Could you elaborate?
SMITH: There are some Christians who are only really comfortable in the Christian world. They're not entirely sure how to talk to people who don't have faith or perhaps have wandered away from faith. There's a whole subculture that listens to only Christian music, embraces entertainment with Christian themes, and doesn't appreciate or relate to anything outside of that. I lived there for a while and can't do that anymore.
WORLD: You make some sharp observations, both positive and negative, about the evangelical subculture in which you grew up-and you criticize "a Christian culture that is incredibly uncomfortable with lamentation and rushes to happiness." Where have you noticed that aspect of Christian culture, and what effect has it had on you?
SMITH: Perhaps I should say that I'm still very much evangelical, but have found an expression for that within Anglicanism that I'm more comfortable with. I'm very thankful for the biblical training I had growing up, for the godly men and women I had the chance to learn from. The culture that has grown up around evangelical Christianity in the United States I think is not entirely healthy, though.
When I talk about that culture being uncomfortable with lamentation, that's something I've rarely heard from the pulpit, but it's an undercurrent of thought that's been common among my evangelical friends, especially women. There's a need to put a positive spin on things, to immediately turn things into praise or gratitude. Sadness or depression are seen as suspect.
As a result of that, and my own personality, I think I learned to suppress those negative emotions and view them as bad, and that didn't work for me. I had to learn that lamentation was part of life, to live through sadness and grief. I take comfort in the fact that this is the faith of Jeremiah, and David, and that Christ on the cross expressed anguish.
WORLD: You were sick for a long time without knowing what was wrong. How did discovering that you had Lyme disease change your life, both physically and mentally? Are you sleeping?
SMITH: The diagnosis was a gift from God, a grace I never expected. I thought I would always live with a mysterious chronic fatigue. The last year and a half, though, has been incredibly difficult-the treatment made the condition worse for a while. But after 18 months on large doses of antibiotics, we're making progress, and I'm actually sleeping at night (except when my new English Lab decides she would rather play). It may be something that I always live with, because it was years before I was diagnosed, but it's improving, and I'm very thankful for that.