A Truth That Should Be Universally Acknowledged



Photo: Anthony Albright

A few weeks ago I completed something that has been on my list for a long time — reading all of Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve written previously about the trouble I had in getting through Mansfield Park, but on the fifth attempt I managed to finish it and surprised myself by liking it best of all. For those who are similarly list-minded, then Emma came in at number two.

Having done that, I decided to round off my treat by having an indulgent morning out, visiting her home in the village of Chawton. It’s where she wrote and published most of her novels, and I enjoyed the twenty-mile drive through Hampshire countryside with its great sweeping fields stretched out red-gold in the late autumn sunshine. It’s an intimate little house and I spent a gentle, but interesting couple of hours there delving around in the relics of her life and watching a short film. In one of the rooms, I stood next to a small round table where she wrote, and I read that a nearby door had a useful creak, granting time to hide her manuscript whenever anyone approached. I learned, too, that by the time she left school at just eleven, she’d already been sent away to schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading.


Photo: Colin Park

Afterwards, at the café, opposite, I sat outside with a warming bowl of vegetable chilli, and my hands cupped around a large coffee. It was a still moment in an otherwise busy week, and I reflected on some of the things I’d learned from reading these novels. So much was unfamiliar. This was a rigid world where the simple act of wearing pearls or diamonds in the morning could result in being labelled a woman of questionable moral virtue. Genteel society allowed for morning calls with the presentation of a visiting card left on a special tray, but these calls were short, with typically just fifteen minutes of polite conversation in the drawing room. Everyone knew the rules and adhered to them. And I realised why shrubberies make so many appearances in Georgian novels. In a constrained society where all eyes were upon you, they provided a place where couples could find some privacy.


But one of the biggest differences between then and now is the general attitude to women and our role in the world. In Jane’s society, men read the serious histories, newspapers and biographies of the day, whilst women were expected to look charming and to read nothing more taxing than a genteel novel. Marriage tied women to the whims of their husbands, but in some respects it was also a key to freedom. As Jane herself put it, “Marriage is the best preservative against want.” Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice holds her nose and marries the repellent Mr Collins in order to escape the old maid’s duty of caring for her brothers.  We all know the opening line of that novel “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The view of an independent woman might be quite different today and I like this twenty-first century version of Jane’s famous opening line—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman is capable of building her own good fortune.” Women have come a long way in the past two hundred years.


Now in these three weeks since my visit to Jane’s house, the world seems to have shifted. I wore my lucky knickers on November 8th but it did no good. The American election was a shock. In a short while, Trump will be the most powerful person in the world. This is a man who was the co-owner of Miss Universe, who told a woman she was disgusting for breastfeeding, who is anti-abortion and therefore believes that women do not have rights over their own bodies, who has made thoroughly creepy comments about his own daughter, and who has many claims of sexual assault against him. Such accusations are a constant risk for anyone in power but he dug his own grave on that one when he was filmed bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy”. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Yet despite all of this he was elected democratically. It’s interesting that non-white women were less convinced, with only 3% of non-college-educated black women voting ‘Trump’. But I find it astonishing that 45% of the college-educated white women who voted, put a cross next to his name, whether holding their noses or not, and that a massive 64% of their non-college-educated counterparts did the same.

In a few years we might look back and think we haven’t come so far after all.



Lucky Knickers


We’ve still got builders working busily round us as we settle into our new home. They’re finishing off various bits and pieces in a very good-humoured way and I’ll miss them when they move on. Usually we manage not to trip over one another too much but the other day I was on my way to the dustbin when I realised that the path was blocked. I could have simply ducked under the ladder that was propped against the wall but instead I chose to wait patiently whilst Paul the builder finished sawing a piece of wood. As I stood there holding a bag of rubbish and getting wet in the drizzle, I wondered whether I could dispense with my superstitions—I’m embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Old habits run deep and these have been passed to me through my mother who was full of odd notions. She wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house, she threw salt over her shoulder, and she said that if you accidentally put your clothes on inside out then you mustn’t take them off and put them on the right way. I’ve never been convinced by that as I don’t recall her ever going out and looking strange. Perhaps she just gave lip service to that one.


Annoyingly, I acquired a new superstition a few years ago when a friend told me that failing to greet a single magpie brings bad luck. At the time I was in the midst of some tricky life events and didn’t dare risk making them worse so although it was something new to worry about, I started doing what my friend does, which is to salute them. It quickly became a reflex action and suddenly these imposing black and white birds seemed to be everywhere, hopping about like lone delinquents. Then I met the man who is now my husband. As we drove through the New Forest on one of our first dates, I was aware out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me curiously. We were both wary at this early stage of our relationship, and eventually he asked why I kept jerking my arm up to my head. We stopped for a drink in the garden of a pretty little pub and I tried to explain. But it sounded silly and as a confirmed scientist he was bemused.

Of course I know rationally that superstition is nonsense. It’s just a collection of odd habits and an unquestioning trust in magical beliefs. The psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman found experimentally that people who use superstitions to ward off bad luck were no luckier than those who were not superstitious.


Perhaps it’s time to drop the funny habits and salutes. Particularly as some of Wiseman’s other research into luck is thought-provoking and much more useful. He got people to rate themselves as either lucky or unlucky and then compared them. The reality of luck is that people who believe they’re lucky aren’t inherently luckier than those who consider themselves unlucky. They’re no more likely to win the lottery, for example, because that’s simply down to probability. But where the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people starts to matter is in the way they create their opportunities.

People who believe they’re lucky have different personality characteristics from those who feel unlucky. They’re more extrovert so they keep in contact with people better, smile more and make more eye contact. These social skills create opportunities. ‘Lucky’ people are also more open. They welcome unpredictability and are not bound by conventions. As such, they tend to travel more and to welcome new experiences. Wiseman describes a man who noticed that he always talked to the same kind of people at parties. So he decided to disrupt the routine, make life more fun and create new opportunities by thinking of a colour and gravitating towards people wearing that colour. At one party he only spoke to women wearing red, and at another to men wearing black.

Even those ‘lucky’ people who have real bad luck, tend to turn it round. I saw this with a dear friend who was dying of a dreadful disease. She never asked, “Why me?” Instead she said in her final days that she felt very lucky because she was surrounded by love.


I recently watched Inside Obama’s White House and there was a wonderful moment when Obama had to struggle with a difficult decision about healthcare. ‘You’ll need to be lucky for it to work,’ said his advisers. He stood still for a few moments and stared out of the window. ‘Where are we?’ he asked. ‘Sir, we’re in the Oval Office,’ came the reply. ‘And what’s my name?’ he said. ‘President Barack Obama,’ replied the aide. ‘Then I feel lucky every day,’ he said.

The United States of America is going to need some luck on Tuesday and I for one, am not taking any chances. I’ll be saluting those magpies, keeping my fingers firmly crossed and wearing my lucky knickers. I only hope that Hillary’s wearing hers too.