I had a Jane Austen class this semester. It was very full of Jane Austen-ness. Yes.
I need to start this “review” by saying how this class changed my view of Jane Austen. The only Austen novel I had read before this class was Pride and Prejudice and I read it as a senior in high school. This is a perfect time for some girls to be introduced to Austen (I know, because a number of the girls in my class couldn’t put it down), but for me it was just a reminder of how much I hated my high school social life. I rather unfairly decided to hate Jane Austen novels, and swore them off.
However, when it comes down to a class on Joyce or a class on Austen, you have to set priorities, and I figured such a class would help me better appreciate the novels. Remember, Jane Austen had a huge hand in helping shape novels as we know them today. Her voice and the personality interwoven into her work was a new phenomenon, and the novel up to that point had not been anything remotely close to the romantic comedies that Austen tended to portray. I can say genuinely I like her better than I did in 2002 when I initially picked up one of her books. Wow, has it been that long?
As far as personal interest in story and overall quality, I would rank the novels as such:
- Pride and Prejudice
- Northanger Abbey
- Sense and Sensibility
- Mansfield Park
Yes, all three problem novels sit at the bottom. Why? Not because they’re the problem novels, they just don’t do anything for me. Let me give a quick spoiler-free rundown of each of the novels, in the order Austen wrote them:
Northanger Abbey: Very obviously the first book Austen completed, even though it was not published until after her death. Catherine is a playful and naïve heroine who has some pretty serious lessons to learn about reality. It feels the most Gothic of Austen’s novels, mostly because it mocks the genre. It is a fun, quick read. I find the story the most entertaining, but not the best written.
Sense and Sensibility: A pleasant enough story, far more complex than it appears at first glance. The exploits of Elinor and Marianne are rather interesting to follow, and the circumstances of how they find true love are both fascinating and mildly implausible. Fanny Dashwood is the highlight of the book for me, but most of her brilliance is in the first ten pages; beyond that I would say watching one of the adaptations would be just as enjoyable a way to get the story.
Pride and Prejudice: Austen’s best known. You’d be hard-pressed to find a girl over 18 who didn’t know at least something about the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. It’s the one I read as a high schooler, and after reading all the others, it was the appropriate one to read in high school. Elizabeth is an entertaining PoV character, one that as a reader you enjoy watching change as her prejudice falls away. Some of the book’s charm lies in the characters and caricatures she creates; I would say in P&P more than any of the others, you can imagine that you know a Mrs. Bennet, a Mr. Bennet, multiple Lydias and Kittys, a Mr. Collins, a Charlotte, a Caroline, etc.
Mansfield Park: The story with a heroine who does not have anything to learn: Fanny Price. As a result, Fanny isn’t the one that changes, but rather it’s Mansfield Park itself. Going into the book understand such—that our heroine will not be changing or developing—will help prepare you for the novel. It was my least favorite purely because the story lacked any charm that really drew me. Never did I feel like cheering for any of the characters, or grow attached.
Emma: This one was my favorite to read and I definitely the best written. Emma is a fascinating, but not particularly likable, person who you don’t mind spending the novel with. Many Austen scholars have argued that Jane Fairfax should be the heroine of the novel. I completely disagree, and the novel doesn’t work without being in Emma’s head.
Persuasion: The one I struggled with the most. The pacing feels very much like Austen knew she was dying and just wanted the story completed. The characters do not draw me in, much like Mansfield Park, but I do find the difference in setting a nice change.
I think reading Jane Austen at least once is a good idea for any writer. Her eloquence and wit are very entertaining (if you can get past the older language and tendency to drag sentences longer than necessary). If you decide to read all of her major works, I suggest reading them in the order I have them listed above, starting with Northanger Abbey. Watching her writing grow and develop is a fascinating way to look at her works.
If you don’t want to read the complete works of Jane Austen, then my suggestion to you is to read either Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, or Emma. I would say read the one you’re least familiar with, and you will get the most out of the experience. If you do choose Northanger Abbey, I would recommend reading one of the others as well. Reading a book solidified in her craft gives a better sense of her writing style.
Were I to hand a Jane Austen book to a curious individual, after this semester, I would probably hand them Emma.
No rankings or grades; I read these for class with a different eye than I would read other novels.