The Joy of Jane
August 2017

This year is a special one for Jane Austen fans. She is being thoroughly celebrated in this 200th anniversary of her death—with the release of the Jane Austen £10 pound note (making her the first woman besides the Queen to appear on the country’s currency); an anniversary service at Winchester Cathedral; a 10-day festival in Bath; a huge convention of the Jane Austen Society in California; and the unveiling of a £100,000 pound statue near her childhood home.

Austen’s bicentennial has also been marked by the publication of a slew of new books on the author’s life and afterlife. Various analyses prove beyond doubt that she was a patriarchal conservative, a liberal suffragist, a demure spinster, a social powerhouse with an eventful life; that her writing is gentle, that it’s cruel; that her novels are light-weight chick lit; that they’re formidable, profound masterpieces—and on and on.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to choose from among very large slew of sequels, prequels, or adaptations—including comic books, video games, soft-core pornography, fantasy, and horror (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

And, as if that wasn’t enough, how about watching one of the apparently ceaseless movie adaptations of her books.  Personally, I am a purist.  I refuse to see any such movies, preferring to my own visual images of the characters intact. (No doubt Colin Firth is handsome and talented, but in no way does he look like Mr. Darcy!)

As you may have guessed, I would recommend you skip all of the hoo-ha and celebrate in the best way possible: reading or re-reading one (or, indeed, all) of her books. Here’s the line-up, in order of my favorites. All of them are superb comedies of manners, arch and ironic in tone, about love and marriage, with a variety of compelling female protagonists.

  • Pride and Prejudice. Plot: A family with five marriageable daughters, one of whom is particularly lively and has a particularly lively courtship. One of the most popular and best-loved novels in English literature. Heroine: Elizabeth Bennet, the most endearing, engaging, witty, and feisty of Austen’s heroines. In Austen’s words: Elizabeth had “a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.”  Read more here.
  • Emma. Plot: A confident young woman tries to play town matchmaker with surprising results.  Along with Pride and Prejudice, Emma is usually considered one of the greatest English novels.  Heroine:  Emma Woodhouse: witty, charming, egotistical, and used to doing what she wants—with no guidance but her own.  In Austen’s words: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.”
  • Persuasion. Plot: A formerly engaged couple meets again after having no contact for seven years. Austen’s last work, the book has a more mellow character and autumnal tone than her others. Heroine: At 27, the most mature, perceptive, responsible of Austen’s heroines. In Austen’s words: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding.”
  • Sense and Sensibility.  Plot and heroines: The story of loves, romances, heartbreaks, and joys of two sisters—Marianne, overly emotional and romantic, and Elinor, sensible, thoughtful, and exemplary. The most biting and satirical of her novels. In Austen’s words: Marianne: “her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.” Elinor “had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them.”
  • Mansfield Park. Plot: The story of an impoverished girl living with her wealthy relatives. Heroine: Unlike Austen’s active and spunky heroines, like Lizzy Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price is shy, timid, and either (1) judgmental and self righteous or (2) principled and steadfast—depending on how you choose to view her. In Austen’s words: “extremely timid and shy, shrinking from notice.” (I found it hard to appreciate this book until I read A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz and Lot’s Daughters by Robert Polhemus.) Read more here.
  • Northanger Abbey. Plot: the coming-of-age story of a seventeen year old Gothic novel aficionado as she visits Bath for the first time. The first of Austen’s novels to be completed and a satire of Gothic novels. Heroine: Catherine Morland, the youngest of Austen’s heroines, is hapless, naïve, overly-imaginative, and sometimes a bit ridiculous, yet kind, sweet, sincere, and ethical. In Austen’s words: Catherine “was affectionate” with a “disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation.”