By happy coincidence, today is the birthday of both Beethoven and Jane Austen. The two of them belong together, although at first glance it might not seem so. She of the perfectly-controlled sentences, with all those passions simmering just below the surface of her thoughts; he of the extraordinary delicacy of the second movement of his fifth symphony and the gentle elegance of his sixth, with all the urgency of the opening and closing of that fifth symphony behind him.
Each in their own way brings their devotees deep satisfaction. They provide for us–he through his music, she through her words–powerful analogues to the often-quiet wonder of human movement itself: the value and meaning of gesture, of subtle touch, of a knowing glance; and persuasive proof–if any were needed–of just how essential those small, graceful motions are in our lives. We can all live without voices for a while, but try though we might, we cannot really live without the warmth of her hand in ours, or his grace in opening the door for us, or the forgiving look in our companion’s eye that says, “I know what you meant.”
It is this level of subtlety, of restraint, that sets Beethoven and Austen apart from their peers and apart from those who have come after them. It is also this level of subtlety that Mark Twain cannot perceive, a fact which accounts, I believe, for his antipathy toward a woman who has been regarded in the last century and in this one as a literary artist on the same level as Leo Tolstoy. Twain’s lack of perception is his loss, but our gain, in both art and life.