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There is no substitute for reading the novels of Jane Austen. I speak as one who has spent his whole life not reading her books until just now. I am aware that there are film and TV adaptations of most of the books: most of these run the risk of becoming the kind of sentimental love story that Austen’s books were written to deride. She was not a writer of romantic comedies. There are also a host of Jane Austen books of excerpts, of the ‘wit and wisdom’ variety, diaries, encyclopedias, scholarly debates on trivia of social usage of the time and more than one continuation of her unfinished novels, as well as pastiche by those who feel able to ‘write like Jane Austen’. All very good for the book trade no doubt. All of these can be enjoyed, but there is no substitute for reading Jane Austen’s novels.
Although highly redundant (there can be few people who like me until recently have not read Austen’s six novels) here is a kind of overview of her work.
Austen wrote from childhood on. Living in an era when families entertained themselves, she wrote playlets, poems and stories which were performed and recited for the enjoyment of her parents and brothers and sister. Austen was also an inveterate rewriter, and some of her stories evolved into the novels we read today. She was pleased with some of this juvenilia and at some stage collected what she thought the best into volumes which have been preserved. Austen was also a great letter writer. Sadly, her family destroyed many of her letters in their attempt to sanitise her as a kind of Victorian ‘good Aunt Jane’.
Like most middle class women of her time Austen’s life was confined to the family. Respectable women like Austen could not work, travel or have a profession. Their only possible career was to marry and have children. So Austen focused inwards, on her own family and local town society. On that small group she turned one of the most penetrating, observant and intelligent minds who have ever set pen to paper. This is no exaggeration. Readers of her books from her day to ours have commented on how accurate her observations on human nature are, despite the changes in customs and fashions that have elapsed over a period of 200 years. She’s always been relevant, and editions of her novels that offer annotations risk obscuring this.
It must not be forgotten that Jane Austen was a renegade of her time, class and sex. She was respectable morally, but socially was not quite so. Why? She didn’t marry, and she wrote. We now know (this was censored by her family but recovered recently) that Austen fell in love while very young, that the match was a good one for her, that the young man died and that Austen was never able to replace him with anyone she liked as much. This was eminently impractical for someone in her position. And she wrote, and published what she wrote, of course anonymously. Even more disconcerting for her family, the books started to sell well. Her last two posthumously published works bore her name on the title page.
The novels fall naturally into two groups. The first published, Sense and Sensibility, and the next, her most popular work then till now, Pride and Prejudice, are both rewrites of novels written while very young. The next work, Northanger Abbey, was written earlier than the first two. The three books are characterised by two qualities. Realism: here are presented the thoughts and emotions of women free of any conventional depiction of what women were thought should be. Seldom has the attitude of a young female been presented so clearly and what seems most accurately. The second quality is satire. If you’ve ever wondered what groups of young women spend so much time giggling about, then, aside from embarrassment, it’s more than likely they are making fun of somebody. The first three books are full of parody, mockery, satire, all very gentle, all very accurate. It is astonishing to consider they were written when Austen was still a teenager. They are very funny books.
Austen was a voracious reader and her reading was wide. Of novelists she liked Samuel Richardson, a novelist whose lengthy epistolatory books once moved several generations to tears. But the author who probably most influenced her was Henry Fielding, one of the great masters of irony in English literature. Fielding’s generosity, compassion, wisdom and sense of the ridiculous was close to Austen’s own qualities, though applied in his case to the picaresque novel a la Cervantes, while Austen pioneered the social novel. One of her claims to fame in fact is as the founder of what we have called, for the last 200 years, ‘the novel’, deconstructed as that form now is.
These three books, although reflecting tragic events such as the death of her ‘attachment’, were written while Austen was living securely in a familiar environment, surrounded by a family she was very close to. The foibles of those she knew could be ridiculed because she herself was sure of her place. The three later books were written after an hiatus of eight years. Austen’s father retired, moved house, some of his sons moved from home to follow their careers, and Austen found herself in a very different environment, unfamiliar, reduced. She was without a room of her own (Virginia Woolf’s essential for a writer, especially a female writer). Think of how important Fanny Price’s room was at Mansfield Park. The situation interfered with her writing. When Austen did start writing again she had taken a great step forward. It is just possible to see the first three novels as autobiographical, because the heroine is one of a group of sisters and the plot is whether she will marry or not.
With Mansfield Park Austen attempted something more complex, a far greater range of characters, a depiction of contrasting social milieux, an examination of the state of not belonging, of injustice and the workings of glamour and hypocrisy. The book is of complex construction, beautifully written, and has great drawbacks for all it’s strengths. It is a very serious work. One imagines Austen might not have been happy when she wrote it. And Fanny Price is a heroine out of Richardson, a good girl wronged by villains and saved at the end by the noble hero. I exaggerate, but the book is redolent of melodrama and self pity.
This is far from being the case with her next book, Emma. As complex in construction and with as large a cast of characters as Mansfield Park, Emma is a sparkling, sunny tale of a smart, gifted girl who involves everybody in a lot of trouble by thinking she knows more about them than she really does. It takes more than a few embarrassments before she sees what was in front of her all the time and takes the step she should have taken at first. Emma is a morality tale, full of good humour. Only at the end is there a sign that the book was unrevised (Austen rewrote even after publication, and would have done so if she could have for her last two books). There are sentences where personal pronouns are used without a clear indication who is the subject of them, a very minor blemish, but notable in Austen, whose writing is so polished and elegant.
Finally there is Persuasion, a tale of a girl who is persuaded to refuse the man who wants to marry her because of his lack of fortune and who comes to see this as the right choice because it was made out of loyalty to her mentor, even though the advice was mistaken and caused two people much suffering. Now, eight years later, she has a second chance. Or does she. The book is an interesting depiction of the effects of aging and experience on our expectations.
Jane Austen had many more books to write when she fell suddenly ill and died at the age of 40 (of a disease now curable, but not then). Looking at the way her writing developed, it is likely her next six books would have eclipsed her first six, but this we’ll never know.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.