Reading Jane Austen
Even in an age mesmerized by true crime dramas, excited by superhero exploits, and benighted by reality show politics, Jane Austen’s star shines undimmed: Festivals summon devotees in period dress to celebrate the style and decorum of her world; novelists invoke her spirit in works like Shannon Hale’s Austenland, which imagines a Jane Austen–themed resort, or such unembarrassed (but sometimes embarrassing) riffs on her most famous work as Prada and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and, yes, Undressing Mr. Darcy. Bumper stickers announcing “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen” can even be glimpsed in the blur of our highway traffic. More seriously, her books continue to inform the inner lives and moral sensibilities of countless readers. The title of William Deresiewicz’s 2011 volume, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, sums up the profound influence of Austen’s tutelage on the men and women who read her.
Austen’s enduring popularity should be no surprise; her books, to quote another English paragon, are “practically perfect in every way.” Although the novel was still a very young art form when Austen was born in the late eighteenth century, her works would become models for its maturity. She lived quietly in Hampshire among a loving family; she never married and rarely traveled. Although her sister Cassandra is alleged to have culled the crop judiciously, nothing in the novelist’s extant correspondence suggests any upheaval or crisis of note. Nevertheless, Austen’s outwardly quiet life produced a legacy that established the gold standard for English fiction.
Always courteous to the reader, toward her characters Austen shows a sympathy that remains fond even when she is exposing their foolishness, a task from which she never shies: No foible escapes her attention, nor the sharp point with which her sentences can pin them to the page. Yet she also evinces an underlying compassion for the heroines whose course through a difficult world she plots. She astutely sets the glitter of romance in the cold light of economics, without ever forgetting that love can carry more in its ledgers than cash. (While Fitzwilliam Darcy, the haughty hero of Pride and Prejudice, may be handsome, what really gets people’s attention is “the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.”) All the same, Austen makes sure we remember that the young women at the center of her novels will have neither money nor property if they don’t find suitable husbands. The inequities of a daughter’s inheritance in nineteenth-century England are felt and fretted over by her characters, and by Austen herself: The marriage contract is both boon and bind.
Pride and Prejudice
In a Class by Itself
The best introduction to Austen’s work is surely the second of the six novels she wrote before her death at only forty-one, Pride and Prejudice, in which she introduces us to Elizabeth Bennet, the wittiest and most vivacious of five sisters on the hunt — if their mother has her way, at least — for husbands. A pair of wealthy young men arrive in the neighborhood — gentle Charles Bingley and arrogant Fitzwilliam Darcy — and Mrs. Bennet quickly sets her sights on one marriage, if not two. While Bingley falls for Elizabeth’s sister Jane, Darcy and Elizabeth are opposites that don’t attract, at least not instantly. When another man intimates that Darcy isn’t such a scrupulous fellow, Elizabeth feels vindicated in her dislike of him; Darcy, in turn, is both infuriated and, against his better judgment, infatuated with her. Not until Elizabeth puts aside her prejudices and Darcy his pride are the two united. It’s the plot that launched a thousand romantic comedies.
Pride and Prejudice is a marvel of vivid dialogue, winning characters, and lavish settings, but it is by no means frivolous. Austen’s droll observation of the manners and mores of her characters and their society is throughout inscribed with a stately eloquence and poise, a note struck in the book’s very first words: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” From that famous first sentence to the last happy turns of amorous choreography for Elizabeth and Darcy, a deeply intelligent music carries the reader along.
To make art out of universally acknowledged truths and the compromises of social convention, both petty and pretty, is a rare gift, and no writer displays it more consistently than Austen. Sir Walter Scott, the big dog of contemporary fiction in Austen’s day, acknowledged her mastery in his journal:
. . . read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.
But let’s not forget the romance. Inventing the romantic comedy, in the most expansive meanings of both those words, Austen shaped the popular imagination in a way few writers have ever done. In a reading history of the world, Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine who overcomes her initial prejudice to conquer the heart of Mr. Darcy, may well be a more lively and influential model than Achilles or Quixote. While the seeds of the species of love story that Jane Austen planted have grown like kudzu — you can’t turn on the television or go to the movies without seeing her shadow in the undergrowth — her own tending of them still makes her books the most enchanting of cultivated gardens, in which ordinary life, foolish attachments, and the hesitations of hope in which we live are rendered delicate and beautiful — and capable of a moment’s happiness. What Jane Austen teaches us is how much a life of feeling, however small and circumscribed, matters to the feeler — and, through the vital etiquette of her art, to readers as well.
Sense and Sensibility
Two Sisters v. Society
Austen’s first published novel, which appeared under the pseudonym “A Lady,” is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and of the tension between private passions and public decorum. Where Elinor is prudent and cautious, Marianne follows her heart where it leads — though the difference doesn’t stop either from having her heart broken. This is Austen’s most social novel, and in both town and country she depicts a privileged class rife with vulgarity and vindictiveness, where falsehoods can go undetected or might as easily be rewarded. For the upstanding women of Sense and Sensibility, society can be a treacherous place, demanding the engagement of both head and heart.
Money, Manners, and Marriage
From a large and not too wealthy family, bashful Fanny Price is sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle at the house that gives this book its name. She finds herself intimidated by everyone there, except her kind cousin Edmund; constantly bursting into tears, she won’t even take part in her coevals’ racy amateur theatricals. Despite the fact that Fanny can be priggish, by following her convictions she ultimately finds true love. Mansfield Park stands at a distance from Austen’s other novels: Although less lustrous than Emma or Sense and Sensibility, and less vibrant than Pride and Prejudice, it’s probably her most substantial book. While some of her fans find it hard to love, it was actually the author’s favorite.
Learning Life’s Lessons
At twenty, Emma Woodhouse — “handsome, clever, and rich” — knows that she’s the most fantastic woman in Highbury, and nothing amuses her more than meddling in other people’s affairs. But although she has good intentions, her matchmaking goes seriously awry, wrecking a perfectly good engagement for her friend Harriet. Only after a spate of social disasters does Emma realize both her own failings and her love for her dashing neighbor. Emma is one of English literature’s most sparkling comedies of manners, and one of the most telling depictions we have of the limits of charm and the shock of self-recognition.
An Austen Curiosity
The first written of Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey was not published until after her death. It is a parody of Gothic fiction — a wildly popular genre in Austen’s day, and one with which Catherine Morland, the novel’s teenage protagonist, is unhealthily obsessed. She can hardly contain her excitement when Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor invite her to stay at the titular home. For Catherine, an “abbey” must have been the site of all sorts of Gothic excesses; she even fools herself into thinking that Henry’s father, the General, has killed his wife. Soon Gothic fantasies give way to actual struggles, but while Catherine learns that real life is not a fiction, Northanger Abbey also passionately defends the importance of literature — an art which offers “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties.”
A Tale of Second Chances
At age nineteen, high-born Anne Elliott was all set to marry her true love, the handsome, poor naval captain Frederick Wentworth, but she broke off the engagement on the advice of her officious godmother. Now twenty-seven, she seems resigned to spinsterhood. But when Anne’s indebted father has to rent out the family estate, Wentworth comes back into Anne’s life — and she discovers that her youthful love has lasted despite its ill-starred interruption. Though its plot may be less intricate than those of Austen’s earlier works, Persuasion is a captivating tale, and Anne is one of her most enduring creations. The last novel Austen wrote in her short life, it points toward an expansion of her extraordinary talents; in the pages of Persuasion, Virginia Woolf would astutely write a century after its publication, Austen “is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed.” It is a discovery the reader is happy to share.