Friday, September 13, 2013

A Jane Austen Project


When I hear that someone has never read Jane Austen, I somehow manage not to drag him or her to the library or bookstore and load them up with Miss Austen’s body of work. She’s one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read all her novels, some of them several times. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite (possibly because of the marvelous British mini-series with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett), with Emma a close second.

In addition to her six novels, the Austen fan can find multiple movies made from her books, as well as sequels, spoofs and take-offs, including the intriguingly-titled, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the movies Clueless (Emma) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice).

I bring this up now because there’s a slew of new books about Miss Austen and her work, this flurry of interest likely related to this year’s 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice. I spent most of August happily engrossed in my own little Jane Austen project.

Why has her work remained so popular when on the surface it appears that the stories are all about young women finding love and getting married? I already knew I enjoyed her sly wit, language usage, and characterization. I learned to respect her even more after reading the books below, each of which has its own take on why she remains popular. So without further ado, if you want to begin an excursion into Austenland, here are some books to make your trip more enjoyable:

If you’re interested in Miss Austen herself, the Penguin Lives biography, Jane Austen, by Carol Shields is a great place to start. It’s an easy-to-read, compact (185 pages) overview of her life. An excerpt:

“The young often read Austen’s novels as love stories. Later, more knowing readers respond to their intricate structures, their narrative drive, their quiet insistence that we keep turning over the page even though we know the ending, which is invariably one of reconciliation and a projection of future happiness in the form of marriage….Marriage reached beyond its moment of rhetoric and gestured, eloquently and also innocently, toward the only pledge a young woman was capable of giving. She had one chance in her life to say ‘I do,’ and these words rhyme psychologically with the phrase: I am, I exist.”

One of the interesting points Shields brought out was that Miss Austen wrote during a time that the novel form was still in its infancy.  “Her novels were conceived and composed in isolation. She invented their characters, their scenes and scenery, and their moral framework. The novelistic architecture may have been borrowed from the eighteenth-century novelists, but she made it new, clean, and rational, just as though she’d taken a broom to the old fussiness of plot and action. She did all this alone.”

The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen, by Carol Adams, Douglas Buchanan and Kelly Gesch. I enjoyed dipping into this lighthearted book. Austen newcomers can learn a little bit about the author and her novels, and dedicated Janeites can delve deeper or test their knowledge of all things Austen.

One of the features in the Armchair Companion is an interview with Joan Klingel Ray, author of Jane Austen for Dummies. When asked about the current fascination with Austen, part of her reply made sense to me: “Austen is unique in that while she is a classic novelist who is studied by academics and taught in universities, she also appeals to what we might call the ‘common reader’—the ordinary person who picks up her novels simply for the pleasure of reading them.”

Ray encourages new readers not to see the films or TV versions of Austen’s work before reading the novels, and suggests they be read in the following order: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. “I think this order eases the reader into Austen’s language and syntax…. Also I think this order draws readers into Austen’s canon by the nature of the ‘stories.’ Readers should also be aware that Austen is a satirist and uses irony, readers need to be able to hear the narrator’s voice for what it is.”

All Roads Lead to Austen, by Amy Elizabeth Smith. Smith spent a year traveling through Latin America, organizing and meeting with small groups to discuss Jane Austen’s books. Smith sums up her year this way: “I hadn’t realized how my trip would really be a road test of values and beliefs I thought I had already absorbed from Austen: Don’t judge too hastily; not everyone wants the same things out of life; people’s circumstances color how they respond to everything; we’re not all speaking the same language, even when we’re speaking the same language.”

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz. I loved Deresiewicz’s deeply thoughtful, honest, and interesting account of the life lessons he received from studying each one of Jane Austen’s novels. For example, he learned the importance of everyday things from Emma: “Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been making time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I ever could have imagined.”

Deresiewicz continued later in the chapter, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.”

After finishing these books, I’ve barely scratched the surface. The list of additional Jane Austen-related books I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet, includes:

Celebrating Pride & Prejudice: 200 Years of Pride and Prejudice, Susannah Fullerton. From Amazon: Austen scholar Fullerton “…delves into what makes Pride and Prejudice such a groundbreaking masterpiece, including the story behind its creation (the first version may have been an epistolary novel written when Austen was only twenty), its reception upon publication, and its tremendous legacy….”

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Paula Byrne.  Byrne looks at the small things, such as a shawl, a notebook and a card of lace, which held significance in Jane Austen’s life, using them to paint a fuller portrait of the author.

Jane Austen’s England, Roy and Lesley Adkins. Written by husband-and-wife historians, this book “explores the customs and culture of the real England” of Jane Austen’s everyday life.   

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe. Instead of Austen herself, Yaffe takes a look at Austen’s obsessed and devoted fans. According to Amazon, Among the Janeites is “Part chronicle of a vibrant literary community, part memoir of a lifelong love…a funny, touching meditation on the nature of fandom.” 

In the Garden With Jane, Kim Wilson. Jane Austen loved a garden, and this book takes us to the types of gardens she would have known, including the one that still exists at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England. The book is full of photos, drawings, social history and novel excerpts.  

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen, Joan Strasbaugh. What books did Jane Austen have in her library? Who were her royal ancestors? A compact reference for Austen lovers.

Jane Austen Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe. One of the more intriguing new releases, “Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors,” according to Amazon.com.  

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. Essayists include Eudora Welty, Anna Quindlin, Amy Bloom, Virginia Woolf, Harold Bloom, and many others, and topics include everything from “insights into the timelessness of her moral truths” to how her writing might have changed if she had lived another 20 years. There’s even a piece by Amy Heckerling about how she turned the characters of Emma into 1990s-era Beverly Hills residents in the movie Clueless.

I haven’t read Pride & Prejudice  recently, and I think maybe it’s time to have a leisurely reread of all Miss Austen’s work, preferably with a cup of tea and a scone in hand. If you’re an Austen fan, which of her books is your favorite? Which book would you suggest that an Austen newbie read first? And just for fun, which Jane Austen heroine are you? Take the quiz here. (I am Elinor Dashwood.) 

Note: For more information on Jane Austen and her work, visit:

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2 comments:

Cheryl Gebhart said...

I have read a few of Jane's books, but not all of them. Of the ones I've read, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite. I would like to read the others eventually, but I saw all the movies before reading any of the books. PBS had a series of all of them a few years ago (probably several years ago now!) and I watched them. That is how I decided to read P&P.

I rarely read a book more than once. I'm a fairly slow reader, and there are so many books I want to read that I don't want to take the time to re-read one I've already read (with a few exceptions).

Kathy A. Johnson said...

Cheryl--You're not the only person I know who generally doesn't reread books. I have a few that I go back to periodically, but mostly I read new-to-me things. I could spend the rest of my life reading from my TBR list/piles and STILL never finish!