Yesterday I was stalked by Jane Austen. Every corner I turned at my local bookstore, there she was—her name emblazoned across titles in the New Fiction and New Non-Fiction sections, even over in Cooking, Food & Wine, where I bumped into The Jane Austen Cookbook. Displayed on the new book tables were Becoming Jane: The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen, edited by Anne Newgarden, and Austen Land, a novel by Shannon Hale. Fresh out in paperback were Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy and Patrice Hannon’s Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love.
I asked the young woman at the information desk if the store’s book buyer is obsessed with a certain Regency-era female novelist. “Nope,” she said. “You’ll find this at all bookstores. Everybody is crazy about Jane Austen these days.” Other recent hot-selling titles, she said, include Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating, Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death and the SATs.
“There’s even a big movie about Jane Austen coming out soon starring Anne Hathaway!” she said, confessing that she couldn’t wait to see it.
That’s when inspirado struck and I saw my door to fame and fortune: I would write a Jane Austen book. To be sure, any volume with Austen’s name in the title could put me in caviar and Cristal for life, but think bigger than that, I prodded myself. Then it hit me: Jane Austen Meets Jesus. A title combining two of the biggest selling names in publishing, along with a movie deal, just might be my $200-million-dollar-winning Powerball ticket.
Immediately, the book started to write itself. Here’s the story: Jane Austen travels back to first-century Palestine to see if Jesus measures up to Mr. Darcy, her paragon of manhood from Pride and Prejudice. Jesus may have been the savior of world, but was he tall and noble, sweet-tempered and charming? And, true, Jesus may have known how to turn water into wine, but did he know, for instance, that when he met a lady in the street he was supposed to wait for her to bow before he tipped his hat to her?
The Gospels tell us much about the Messiah, but they are infuriatingly silent on many details Jane would have to assay herself. Was Jesus handsome? Clearly people flocked to him. But did the girls of Nazareth ever swoon when he entered a room? The Bible tells us Jesus could walk on water. But could he dance—advance and retire, gracefully take the hand of his partner; bow and curtsey, corkscrew and thread-the-needle?
Of course, Jesus shared some traits with Fitzwilliam Darcy. Both men were misunderstood. People were always confused about who Jesus was and what his sayings meant. Similarly, the citizens of Derbyshire mistook Mr. Darcy’s shyness for aloofness and arrogance. And like Mr. Darcy, Jesus’ actions were motivated by a genuine concern for others, behind which some, like the scribes and Pharisees, suspected a malicious intent.
In at least one category, Jesus couldn’t hold a candle to Mr. Darcy: wealth and social status. Whereas Mr. Darcy had an income in excess of 10,000 pounds a year and owned a large estate called Pemberley, Jesus was born in a barn and was homeless, possibly by choice.
In my book, Austen encounters Jesus while he’s delivering a sermon atop a mount in Galilee. As he exhorts his listeners to “turn the other cheek” and not to “cast pearls before swine,” Austen, a master wordsmith herself, is ineluctably drawn through the crowd to Jesus’ side. With her parasol shielding her fair skin from the sun, Austen starts spouting her own jewels of wisdom. But what begins as an innocent verbal showdown between the Nazarene and the novelist soon turns ugly. Here’s their exchange, based on words they actually said or, in the case of Austen, wrote:
Jesus: “A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
Austen: “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.”
Jesus [ignoring Austen]: Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Do not be anxious asking, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”
Austen [shooting Jesus a funny look]: “Dress? My dear sir: It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet.”
Jesus: “Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field…”
Austen [eyeing Jesus’ tattered tunic]: “Well, one man’s style must not be the rule of another’s… One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”
Jesus: “I tell you, do not lay up treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”
Austen: “You speak ill of wealth. Why, a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of! [Some in the crowd applaud, then Austen adds] Business, you know, brings money, but friendship hardly ever does.”
Jesus: “Blessed are the poor!”
Austen: “Be honest and poor, by all means—but I shall not envy you; I do not much think I shall even respect you. I have a much greater respect for those that are honest and rich.”
Jesus: “Blessed are the meek…”
Austen: “Everything nourishes what is strong already.”
Jesus [glaring at Austen]: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves…”
Austen: “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like, and for disapproving what we don’t!”
Jesus [nodding in Austen’s direction]: “You will know false prophets by their fruits…”
Austen: “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.”
Jesus: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Austen: “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
Jesus: “Blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…”
Austen: “Ah, vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief!… [Shrugging, she adds] I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
Jesus: “But I say to you, everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment…”
Austen [exasperated]: “You have delighted us long enough. We all love to instruct though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. [Sighs] The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love.”
That evening, Jane writes in her diary: “They say Jesus is a good man—the Son of God, in fact—and he may very well be. But he is no Mr. Darcy.”
This story originally appeared on SoMAreview.com.