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Jamie Stiehm: Jane Austen Still Rules — and Gives Fresh Air to Washington

High July 2017 is a watermark for Jane Austen, who died in her sister’s arms 200 years ago in Winchester, England. She was 41, the author of six perfectly chiseled novels of realism. Her dialogue sounds like nicely played notes of a Mozart sonata.

But trust me, she’s not so nice and sweet. She captures character like nobody else. What a number she would do on President Donald Trump.

Human voices seem to speak aloud from the pages. A fine tonic for the “repeal and replace Obamacare” chorus coming from Congress and the absolute shock wave of Sen. John McCain’s brain cancer. It’s a cruel summer under the sun in Washington.

Pride and Prejudice, anyone? Mr. Darcy (pride) and Elizabeth Bennet (prejudice) are under the stars at an upcoming open-air film fest at Dumbarton House in Georgetown.

Perhaps you prefer Emma, “handsome, clever and rich.” It’s a tantalizing mystery that goes up and down the social ladder. (Least among the clues: Why did Frank Churchill, “the favourite of fortune,” go to London for a haircut?)

We all have our favorite Austen. Mine is her last, Persuasion. In darker colors, the novel revolves around Anne Elliot, who knows her way through a vale of tears. Yet there’s a hope of second chances long after a broken heart, and I read it after one of my own. I fancied Captain Wentworth, truth be told.

Austen had two brothers who became admirals, so that’s one teabag of her life. Her highbrow family was not the leisured landed elite, but solidly middle-class. The sons had to work for a living. There was an exception: Edward, adopted by a magnificently wealthy family, the Knights, seeking an heir.

American men think Austen writes about making matches, so few read her fiction. That’s true, but not as simple as it seems. Austen sees marriage as the only institution that gives young women a chance to change their destiny.

Under the dancing repartee between bright Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy lies a deadly serious marketplace for females. Pity the family with five daughters. A “spinster” herself, Austen was keenly aware of the importance of marrying well.

She’s a sharp-eyed observer of fathers failing their daughters, charm, cruelty, vanity, snobbery, deception, hypocrisy, hysteria, hypochondria, even Mr. Elton’s social assault on high-born Emma in a carriage. How dare he, she’s way out of his league! (He’s the oily new village clergyman.)

Austen lived a country life. She made it to London now and again, but never crossed the English Channel. She heard scenes of the French Revolution secondhand from family.

Living in a brick cottage with her mother and sister, Cassandra, Austen didn’t have a lot of nice things. Her writing table was her all. She played the piano every morning to start her day. I’ve visited Chawton Cottage, where one of the greatest novelists in the English language dwelled.

(Not, gentlemen, only one of the greatest women novelists.)

This cottage is part of the gorgeous estate that Edward inherited. In Sense and Sensibility, a tale of two sisters, Austen evokes the grim specter of women left to the mercy of kindness from family when a father’s death strikes — since inheritance always passed from man to oldest son and so on. Worse yet, if there were no sons, a distant cousin showed up, as she wrote.

It is a truth universally acknowledged: Austen was not a romantic, like the Brontës. A clear realist and ironist, she’s all in for restraint and order, morals and manners. The passionate Brontë sister-writers can have their wild moors, Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff — even a madwoman in the attic — but Austen liked emotions buttoned up in British fashion.

Mr. Darcy fits the bill when he remarked on "the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes ... can bestow.” But he says this to a friend at a ball, after first encountering Elizabeth.

Austen, in agony, turned down her one proposal. But I have her perfect match: Vice President Aaron Burr, a charming character who loved brilliant Englishwomen — he married one.

That would have given her a lot to write about.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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