Ask the millions of Jane Austen fans commemorating the bicentenary of her death today and they’ll tell you: Jane has a way of taking you there.
Researchers at Michigan State University agree. Using MRI scans of readers’ brains as they enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, the neuroscientists thought they’d find activation in brain tissue associated with attention. Instead, they found Jane’s writing activated “areas of the brain more commonly associated with movement and touch”. In other words, Jane’s writing has a way of making the brain believe it’s experiencing rather than reading.
It confirms Nanna’s theory – and she’s sure there’s a book in it – that Austen was a closet yogi. There are books on Jane Austen about her links to … almost everything. Jane Austen and politics. Jane Austen and education. Jane Austen and the military. Jane Austen and money. There are dozens of modern settings for her stories, from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to the more off-beat Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In other words, Jane is fair game – she’s out of copyright – and with all the mad adoration openly expressed during her bicentenary this year, there’s a market for her still. Jane’s own books may be available free on the web, but scores of other writers have boarded her bandwagon for royalties. And for the makers of Jane Austen tchotchkies, from tea towels and coffee mugs, to replica turquoise rings and the Marry Mr Darcy Board Game, there’s little legal rigamarole between production line and profit.
So what’s the thesis of Nanna’s book? I will trawl through the six novels to find evidence of just what the Michigan brainiacs have proved: the mindfulness of Jane Austen. The in-the-moment immediacy of her philosophy that demonstrates true yogic discipline. Of course she tried to hide it – a girl in the early 1800s could be known for her cotillion, but not her crow pose; for her reel, but not her revolved triangle. She threw in quotes like this from Persuasion: “none of us want to be in calm waters all our lives”. It’s a clever ruse. Jane’s attempt to throw us off the path of her total devotion to calm waters in her meditation practice. Elsewhere in the novel she comes clean:“an interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous.” See – obvious isn’t it?
It may not have been possible to do a downward facing dog in crinolines, but the physical practice of asana was only ever a tiny slice of yoga practice – designed to prepare the body for long periods of meditation. And what are Jane’s girls ‘condemned’ to do for hours every day? Sit in silent meditation! Sometimes with a book or needlework – but always working towards surrender to the Lord, in the symbolic form of a Darcy or Tilney or Wentworth. The novels are not about romance, but the search for enlightenment!
In Mansfield Park she says: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” An obvious allusion to a key practice in Patanjali’s definition of Kriya Yoga: ishvara pranidhana – attunement to the indwelling wisdom. Her close study of the Bhagavad Gita is evidenced in Sense and Sensibility: “the happiness of the Dashwoods, was such – so great – as promised them all the satisfaction of a sleepless night”. A clever play on Krishna’s teaching that exhilaration and misery are equally disturbing to the soul, as he exhorts Arjuna to be: “alike in success and defeat, for yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” II, 47. It’s all there in the texts, camouflaged as thinly as a titled matron at a masked ball.
So, if there’s a market for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, surely Pride and Prejudice and Prana must be in with a chance?