I was a teenager when the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice came out, and I also got a creative writing degree from an anglo university that based most of its curriculum on English literature. So it's honestly kind of impressive I managed to avoid reading Austen for thirty years!
I read Pride and Prejudice for the very first time in February and found the book to be a quick and fun read. I then decided to read all of Jane Austen's published works. Part of this decision was evidently fuelled by Montréal entering lockdown in March and the fact that I was able to get free epubs of the books on Project Gutenberg.
I read the books peppered over the summer and fall, in the following order: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. Without further ado, let's jump into the books, from least to most enjoyed!
In Mansfield Park, Austen captures with particular perspicacity the difficult and hateful familial relationships that have tangled protagonist Fanny Price in a complex web marred by class nonsense, family awfulness, and petty resentment. Fanny's lack of agency is arresting and at times difficult to read. Mrs Norris, her particularly cruel and petty aunt, is possibly my least favourite of Austen's insufferables. It was while reading Mansfield Park that I realized that Austen's ability to so faithfully convey the psychology and pettiness of such a wide array of deeply flawed human beings was too precise for it to be the product of mere invention. As I tweeted at the time: "boy do I feel for her, [Austen] must have lived surrounded by nimrods."
Mansfield Park left me unfortunately lukewarm as a whole. Fanny has intriguing elements of an almost protofeminist reasoning when she refuses her uncle's wishes regarding his intentions to marry her off. Yet I found the novel's resolution unsatisfactory: by the end, I truly desired nothing more than to set Mansfield Park (the estate, not the book) on fire.
When I started Emma and posted about it on Instagram, I was incredibly entertained by how many people messaged me about how much they absolutely hated or loved the protagonist. She's definitely polarizing! This was also the Austen novel I had the hardest time reading through from cover to cover — though, that might be due to external factors such as work and life generally getting in the way.
What I nonetheless enjoyed: the near claustrophobic portrayal of small town shenanigans and gossip. The novel does a really good job of showing how little the women of Austen's time had control over their own social and geographic mobility. Emma Woodhouse is a big fish in a little pond; spoiled and unpleasant as she often is, she's in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways trapped. Austen's narration of a teenaged 18th century Mean Girl in Southern England manages to balance compassion with (justified) criticism — in this respect, there is an interesting parallel between Emma and Northanger Abbey's narration I found compelling from a technique perspective.
A note: the novel is unfortunately irreparably marred in my eyes for its use of Roma people or Irish travellers (as "Gy—y" was a slur used to refer to either groups at this period of time) as a minor villainous plot device.
Northanger Abbey's affectionate and satirical take on 18th century gothic novels is very entertaining. I haven't read any true 18th century Gothic literature in a long time, and I'm in the mood to check out more of the genre now. I don't know if I'd have quite the appetite that Catherine has for Ann Radcliffe's work (some preliminary googling heralds Radcliffe as a possible founder of the Byronic hero and the "explained supernatural" literary technique), but it could be fun to explore the older examples of this genre more fully. Helps that most of this literature is now in the public domain!
One thing I will note about Northanger Abbey is that it was the novel I had the hardest time following. It feels less timeless than many of the others on this page. I ended up spending a lot more time googling basic things about Regency England in order to understand a good chunk of the subtext and meaning of a scene. While I had to do tiny bits of research for all the books (mostly double checking what various out-of-use words meant and my continuous puzzlement over British currency) I feel like Northanger, with its several centuries old historical and literary allusions, was the book where I felt the most out of my depths.
Sense and Sensibility
En bref: I actually ship Elinor and Colonel Brandon and I'm still a little mad they don't end up together!
I found Elinor a poignant protagonist, the only eldest sister amongst Austen's heroines. I found the subtly critical portrayal of the Dashwood family dynamics particularly effective. In Elinor we find a young woman who is in almost every respect taking her mother's place as elder and leader of her household, taking on the emotional burden of maintaining order and happiness amongst her sisters and remaining parent. She is everyone's confidante but confides in no one; she is preoccupied with everyone's wellbeing but her own. I could relate to the broad strokes of Elinor's character, and I could really relate to her general self-effacing state of exhaustion brought on by the burden of emotionally managing the emotional states of those around her.
Sense and Sensibility's offering to Austen's insufferables is sister-in-law extraordinaire Fanny Dashwood. The character's ability to mete out cruelty and withhold financial support and friendship to a grieving family is positively breathtaking. Once again, I am left with the firm conviction that Austen based her most cruel characters on real people. Thankfully, the authoress arranges a rather ridiculous but satisfying comeuppance for Fanny Dashwood by the end of the novel.
Aside: upon watching the 1995 Ang Lee-directed film adaptation, I can certainly understand why Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for the film's screenplay. It notably improves on the novel's chief weakness: demonstrating why Edward Ferrars is in any way a desirable match for Elinor!
Pride and Prejudice
I think I'd be lying if Pride and Prejudice wasn't near the top of this list! It got me to read all these books, so evidently I liked it very much. (I honestly almost placed it in third place, but I'm still mad about Elinor not ending up with Colonel Brandon so here we are.)
Pride and Prejudice is a classic for a reason. While I found its social commentary arguably less sharp than several other Austen novels — though I fully accept being challenged on this! — and its ending is sappy, I found its style and pacing very enjoyable.
I was a bit sad by how little Mr Bennet, the protagonist's father, seems to respect his wife. Throughout my reading of all the books, I found that Austen often writes about unequal (and difficult) relationships in a sardonic light between her secondary married characters — Charlotte and Mr Collins or Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park being other prominent examples that come to mind as I type these words.
Ah, my favourite! I really liked Persuasion. It's a book that makes me regret that Austen died relatively young and that the world never got to read the works her wiser, wizened mind could conjure, as this novel was published posthumously, completed shortly before her death.
How to even put words to my adoration of this book? Anne, the obliging and put-upon middle daughter of a minor aristocratic family fallen into deep debt and near financial ruin, is an interesting mix for a protagonist. She has a good deal of Elinor Dashwood’s sensitivity and selflessness, Marianne Dashwood's (and Catherine Morland’s) adoration of literature, and Elizabeth Bennet's keen sense. All she lacks is the courage to assert herself, but her familial and unmarried status make it socially impossible for her to assume any real autonomy or even authority. As a social subordinate in almost every scenario throughout the novel, watching Anne endure awkwardness after awkwardness had me feeling all sorts of emotions! But, unlike Fanny Price or even the eponymous Emma, my ability to root for Anne never wavered. I wanted her to end up with the man she'd loved for the better part of ten years — even when I really wasn't enthused about the Captain himself.
I admit Captain Wentworth did not seem worthy to me until the very end of the novel. I think Austen was incredibly wise to include that last letter from him, because it pierced my soul! I swooned. I was irrevocably moved by a heterosexual romance, rather than merely or passably amused! Especially for a hero of the English Navy! My Irish and French ancestors are so done with me. (Just kidding. All my ancestors are so done with me.)
Now that I've read all the Austen canon, I can say with some certainty that Persuasion is probably going to be the Austen novel I reread on a regular basis. If I found Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor very relatable, Persuasion cranked that intimate relatability up to eleven.
I don’t think I’d ever gone out of my way to read a single author’s entire canon in such a close period before (with the notable exception being James Joyce, though I can blame my university classes for that one). I found the experience overall really valuable. Watching the author’s style subtly change (and even evolve — I almost regret I didn't read the novels in order of her writing them) was a worthwhile exercise. I hadn’t quite understood the obsession with regency era romance when the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie had come out, but honestly, I kinda get it now. It’s basically beautifully written romantic trash with whole barouches’ worth of moral eroticism! As someone who has essentially been conditioned to see queer subtext in the barest of contexts because I was denied any sort of queer representation in media growing up, turns out I’m actually a bigger fan than I thought I would be of watching romantic heroes pine for each other through layers of starched cotton, icy social convention, and awkward English dances! So, all that to say that I get Austen now and I’m happy to call Persuasion in particular my trash 📚♥️😅
If you have a favourite (or least favourite!) Austen novel, please write to me with all your gushing feelings and details! I would very much appreciate hearing all about it.