Monday, December 16, 2013

Jane Austen in the lunch queue

Today is Jane Austen's birthday and around the world Austen fans are celebrating (with a dainty dance and a spot of witty banter, perhaps?) So today's post is in honour of the great lady (with apologies for my 21st century impertinence...)

The thing I love most about Jane Austen's writing is her ability to observe people in everyday situations. She was the consummate people-watcher of her day, noting the social quirks of her peers both in public and in private. While the love stories of her books will always be irresistible, what I adore more than anything about her work are the sparkling nuggets of overheard conversations, subtle (and not-so-subtle) gestures and the preposterousness of social conventions of the day. These were, and still remain today, the essential tools of writers - collecting people and inviting readers to spy on them.

Over two hundred years after her birth, people-watching is very much alive, although the gathering places have changed from the society balls and grand social occasions of Jane Austen's time. So, I found myself wondering today what she would make of the lunch queue where I used to work. (Like you do!)

Of course, had Jane Austen been alive today she would have just turned 236, so the odds of her standing for long enough to observe are decidedly slim... But supposing some kind soul had found her a debatably comfortable seat on a mock-pine melamine chair in the small coffee shop in the atrium of the office complex in Wolverhampton. What would she make of the motley crew of gathered office workers standing in line to buy their lunches?

Take, for example, the young guy who lined up every lunchtime with his mother. Blessed with an impressive mop of red hair and a perennial blush, he waited solemnly, head bowed, as his fifty-something companion (all richly-lined mouth and jangling gold jewellery) proudly regaled the assembled queuers with embarrassing tales of his seventeen-year-old life. "He brought a girl home the other day. Drippier than a stream of tap water and not much brighter, but she'll do for now..."

I think Jane would have seen it all and logged it in her mind, as writers do. I wonder if she might then have one day written a scene where he finds the courage to stand up to the overbearing mother and make his own way in the world...

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