Today is celebrated (among Janeites and English teachers, really) as the 200th Anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. My love for the works of Jane Austen predates my love for all things Shakespeare; I am an unabashed Janeite.
One of my favorite scenes in Mansfield Park - a novel that is a much more representative picture of its time and place than any of Austen's other novels; I had a professor in college who assigned it as a primary source reading in her course on English history - is this exchange between the hero, Edmund Bertram, and the story's cad, Henry Crawford:
"That play must be a favourite with you," said he [Edmund]; "you read as if you knew it well."
"It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour," replied Crawford; "but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."
"No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent."
"Sir, you do me honour," was Crawford's answer, with a bow of mock gravity.
"Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how...His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere." How I love that!
Of course I enjoy the romance of Austen's stories - Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Knightly, and the rest. But I return to them again and again not only for the comfort of the familiar words, but for how much Austen's novels continue to unfold their riches. Her insight into her society, the layers of her symbolism, the wit with which she attacks - and, occasionally, sympathizes with - her characters and their situations make Austen one of the best writers in the English language. The scholar Harold Bloom once wrote, "Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us....We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings." That sounds an awful lot like what Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram were talking about - regarding Shakespeare!