Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Novels of Jane Austen

As a teenager, I couldn't appreciate Jane Austen at all, but as I get older I admire her writing more and more. So here are my comments on her novels, listed in roughly reverse order (from least favorite to most favorite.)
  • Pride and Prejudice: I was required to read this in high school, and I could not distinguish between it and an ordinary romance novel. I understood the plot pretty well, but Austen's ironic flourishes and digressions went right over my head. Now I appreciate the book more, but I still think that Darcy is too full of himself, and although the author sets forth the proposition that his "pride" and Elizabeth's consequent "prejudice" are equally to blame for keeping them apart, I just can't agree.
  • Emma: even after I started to enjoy Austen's other books, it took me a long time to get into Emma. The first sentence -- even the first six words -- were too much for me. After reading "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . ." I would think to myself, "I don't want to read about somebody who's perfect." and close the book. Of course, the whole point is that Emma is not perfect -- far from it. But even now, I don't enjoy seeing her humiliated. It is a superb accomplishment on Austen's part, that she can make me feel sorry for a character who has been getting on my nerves throughout the whole book, but such abrupt changes of sentiment are too taxing for me. Reading Emma is hard work.
  • Mansfield Park: if Emma is too arrogant, Fanny Price is much too meek. The last time I read this, I started to realize that it is much more enjoyable if one doesn't think of Fanny as the heroine. She is the eye of the storm, the passive center, around which everybody else rushes and whirls. A sort of anti-heroine (like anti-matter.) I think the best part of the book is the character of Mary Crawford. She is almost modern, with her lack of respect for her elders and her cynical worldly wisdom. And it's interesting to note that even though Fanny is too good to be true, and Mary is her rival in love, Austen avoids the temptation of making her evil. We're told that she doesn't know Fanny is in love with Edmund. She is never deceitful or deliberately cruel. It appears that she genuinely loves Edmund, but she can't get past her prejudice against the clergy, which was instilled in her by the fashionable world. Maybe she thinks Edmund is also too good to be true. And maybe she's right.
  • Sense and Sensibility: This one I have no quibble with. It is pure entertainment, just like fireworks.
  • Persuasion: One of my other favorites. Sweet and sad . . . and what an astonishing progression, from the nonstop exuberance of Austen's early works (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) to this pensive ├ętude.
  • Northanger Abbey: This is my favorite. When I want entertainment, I read Sense and Sensibility. When I'm feeling romantic and melancholy, I read Persuasion. But this is a perfect blend of the amusing and the serious. Catherine Morland is confronted with questions that I'm still struggling with: How can you tell if someone is trustworthy? Why do people say so many things they don't mean? Do Gothic novels bear any resemblance to real life?* What, in fact, is reality? Also I think that it contains more quotable lines than any other of her novels, from Catherine's "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible," to almost everything that Henry Tilney says, to Austen's spirited defense of her protagonist's love of novel-reading, ending with "If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

Addendum: Lady Susan. This is not a well-known work, but it is very worth reading. A short epistolary novel about a beautiful, amoral woman who can (and does) charm every man she comes across. One can't help but think that Austen found it refreshing to set aside the weight of morality which is so noticeable in all her published works.

And since this is the Internet, I have to close by remarking that Pemberley is the "all Austen, all the time" web site.

* Well, okay, I don't read many Gothic novels. But I have consumed a great deal of science fiction. And I'm much struck by the fact that fiction, by definition, is not real, and yet those of us who read it and love it firmly believe that it has a lot to say about the world.

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