My Jane Austen Moment


This is an excerpt from Zoe Taylor’s Story: Confessions of a Cigarette Addict

Chapter 19 – Jane Austen in the Park

I felt so free. Women
were still in arranged marriages, having their feet bound, and in other
male-dominated situations all around the world, but not in America. We were
equals with our men. We had the pill. Surprise babies were a thing of the past.
We could smoke cigarettes, go to college, have jobs. We could go wherever we
wanted to go and do whatever we wanted to do. What a privileged time in which
to be born. We could wear jeans and sit cross-legged on the ground and get high
and read books all day, and eat out in restaurants whenever we could afford to.
We did not need our father’s brother’s, uncle’s, boyfriend’s, husband’s
permission to do any of these things. What would Jane Austen think? I picture
the clothes she had to wear, the socially orchestrated life she had to live.
I’m in the park by the rose garden sitting on the brick stairs at the end of
the brick walk, just enjoying the warm sunniness of the day and the smell of
cut grass and roses. I’m wearing an embroidered Indian white on white top of lightweight
cotton and my khaki carpenter jeans with the little loop for a hammer. My white
Dr. Scholl’s sandals are thrust out in front of me. I’m resting on my elbows,
catching a few rays. I turn and open my eyes and I see Jane Austen walking
towards me down the garden path drenched in dappled summer sun and shadows
filtered through the old maples and oaks that line the path. She doesn’t see me
yet. She seems to float down the brick walk in her long skirted dress, head
high, back perfectly straight. She has slipper-type shoes with low heels. They
are off-white with a bow on the front. Her dress is in the Greek style, empire
waist, loose skirts flowing softly to the tips of her shoes. It looks like an
everyday dress, cream background, small floral design, maybe roses, in pinks
and greens, perhaps a chintz. The dress has a V-neck with a wide creamy cotton
collar, spotless, and sleeves just above the elbow with a crisp creamy lace
edge. She has the handles of a woven handbag twined around her gloved right hand.
It’s one of those small pouch-type bags, pulling on the handles closes the top
of the bag. Her hair is brown, piled atop her head, no loose ends. She has a
summer straw picture hat on her head, pink and green ribbons around the brim,
trailing down her back. A puzzled expression crosses her delicate features. She
doesn’t recognize her surroundings.
She sees me and her puzzlement increases momentarily before she takes control
of her expression. In spite of her control, I can see that she is scandalized.
I remember I am braless. Perhaps, though, that is the least conspicuous of my
“Good morning, Ms. Austen,” I say.
“Where am I she says?” forgetting her usually excellent manners.
“You’re not really here,” I say, “you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was somewhere that made me very happy,” she says, “I
wouldn’t want to get lost.”
“Where were you? Was it heaven? What was it like?” I ask.
“Oh we’re not allowed to talk about that,” she says.
“Please sit down. Sit down here on the steps with me.” I say, moving down a few
steps to make room for her big dress. Maybe we could have a conversation.”
She is not overly fastidious. She sinks gracefully to perch on the top step.
She looks me over.
“My dear,” she says, “what are you wearing. I have never seen such clothing.
Pants on a women! Where are your undergarments?”
“Call me Zoe, Ms Austen”, I say, “This is the year 1969, and my friends all
dress like this. We’re members of a large social movement called ‘hippies’.”
“1969?” she repeated astounded, “America? Hippies?”
Her eyes started to glaze over.
“We have a commercial for cigarettes that says ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’
We are also in the middle of a social revolution called the “Women’s Liberation
Movement’,” I say, “I got you here to see what you think of our new freedoms.”
“Cigarettes? Commercial? Baby?” she echoes, still not focusing as I would have
“Cigarettes are tobacco rolled in paper,” I tell her, “a commercial is an
advertisement and, since women can smoke cigarettes openly now and they once
could not the ad is speaking to women. Baby is modern slang, used to show how
cool and hip women are now.”
“Cool?” she says, “Hip?”
“Never mind,” I say, I really just wanted you to notice how free we are. We
have a pill. If we take it everyday we don’t get pregnant. We can have as many
lovers or as much sexual intercourse as we like because we are protected as
long as we remember to take that pill. We don’t have to wear skirts all the
time and we don’t need the protection of a man. We can come and go as we like,
even have an education and a career.”
She thinks, taking in all I have said.
“My dear Zoe,” she says, “you are not as free as you imagine. Given the nature
of some men, who can be as evil as the Devil, I think you will find that total
freedom for women is a myth. And while the idea of an education for women is
wondrously marvelous, and even having projects that occupy the mind is a
concept I can grasp, a woman’s reputation will always be important and must be
guarded at all times. Women, like men, will never be totally free. Free to do
what? To be low and depraved. Sexuality, free of love is an abomination leading
to the basest kinds of behavior.”
I didn’t argue, although this encounter had not gone quite as I expected.
Apparently Jane did not envy my freedom as much as I had hoped she would. I
just gave myself a knowing little “I know better” smile and made my politest
good-byes. I was satisfied with the contrast between our situations, certain
that I was infinitely more sophisticated and that modern women should have
knocked the socks off of Ms. Jane Austen. All of her warnings were just
anachronistic (excuse me) “bullshit”. (She would have frowned over that
vulgarism, but, to underline my point, I was free to say it.)
I stood up, took one last whiff of the roses and walked home, by myself.



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