Before the pandemic arrived, sending us home to shelter in place with Netflix, my wife and I went to the local cinema and watched “Emma,” the latest Jane Austen movie. We couldn’t have known it at the time, but Miss Austen proved a useful primer on weathering the contagion.
The English characters Austen conceived some two centuries ago were, it turns out, pioneering champions of social distancing. Even in courtship, the young lovers of Austen’s novels, at least as depicted by Hollywood, seem to visit with each other the prescribed 6 feet apart.
To read Austen — in fact, to read almost any novel of that time — is also to be reminded that people back then lived with an abiding sense of mortality. They hadn’t yet embraced the idea that medical science could easily address every threat — a confidence that was, until just weeks ago, at the center of our national creed. Austen herself died at just 41 years old in 1817, but such tragedies were common back then.
That reality runs through Austen’s novels, often subtly, even when they’re funny. Though the heavy panting and pining of Austen’s characters can seem a bit much to modern readers, the intensity of feeling in her fiction has its own logic. The people of her day knew, in angling for happiness, just how much was at risk. In a world where life was routinely short, second chances weren’t always or even usually in the picture.
I’ve been thinking about all of this as I watch neighbors pass on the sidewalk across from our house. They smile in greeting and sometimes stop to talk with each other. But the new space between them, one created by coronavirus, has a 19th century formality about it, a manner that seems as out of place in 2020 as quill pens and calling cards.
I felt the same strangeness the other day when I collected take-out from our favorite pizzeria, a small gesture of support for a local restaurant that, like countless others, can no longer seat diners because of COVID-19. The cashier and I navigated the hand-off of dinner with a choreography as careful as a period ball, each of us alert to the newfound perils of human touch.
It would have been comic if it weren’t so sad. A few feet away, all the restaurant chairs were overturned and hooked atop tables. The legion of upside-down chairs thrust the air as if wielded by lion tamers, a grim tableau in an eatery we treasure as a place of fellowship.
In so many ways, the life of Louisiana and the nation is upside-down now. The economic hardship for many is real, and the grief over the pandemic’s casualties is vivid. We wonder when life will return to normal.
“When people are waiting,” Austen wrote, “they are bad judges of time, and every half minute seems like five.”
Boy, Jane, you were right about that.