editions: Penguin Clothbound Hardcover
Pride and Prejudice – 4 out of 5 2/2-2/8
Emma – 4 out of 5, 3/27-4/3
Mansfield Park – 2.5 out of 5, 6/6-6/9
Sense and Sensibility – 4 out of 5, 8/15-8/19
Northanger Abbey – 5 out of 5, 10/10-10/13
Persuasion – 3 out of 5, 12/13-12/17
While the whole impulse behind the Ten Year Catch-Up was to tackle Dickens, I have to say that making a concerted effort to conquer Austen was a close runner-up in importance. The great number of female friends who would look reprovingly at me when I’d sheepishly admit to never having finished Pride and Prejudice was just too much to bear (gentlemen, might I advise that you either get intimately familiar with the Wikipedia page on Austen or attempt a reading of at least that novel and one other) – and so, with Dickens safely taken care of, I set out to tackle Austen. Plus, it was the 200th anniversary of that most-famous tome’s publication, so if not now, when?
The story of my attempts at reading P&P is not terribly interesting – I believe I made three attempts before finally reading it straight through in February of this year, each time being thrown out of its pages before I could make it to the end. Let’s not discuss my youthful appreciation for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a collection now only worth noting because of Quirk’s gorgeous hardcover edition. My only other engagement with Austen had come from reading Northanger Abbey in college, although I still question the professor’s intention in having us read a satire (which is, I believe, the best descriptor) of Gothic fiction before we really had a true sense of what Gothic fiction was.
And so I came into Austen feeling like it would be a bunch of fancy balls and frivolous ladies and aloof men and they’d all get married in the end, after someone has probably made a questionable swimming decision (see: Colin Firth in the P&P film thing). And, yes, that’s pretty much Pride and Prejudice. Don’t get me wrong, I did end up actually enjoying the novel (albeit suffering through some boring bits now and then) – but it wasn’t anything out of the expected. Lizzy and Darcy have their Benedick-and-Beatrice sparring and they fall in love and in the meantime there’s some frivolity and some sadness and a shitload of fancy balls. Forgive me, but, shrug.
It was Emma that changed my mind about Austen, plain and simple. I knew nothing about the book going in and as a result I had a blast. Oh, sure, it still had its dull points – and Walter Scott is absolutely right in that it, somehow, has even less plot that P&P – but I’ll be damned if it didn’t hit me perfectly right as spring really began to bloom in New York. Emma is hilarious, Knightley a great match, and the cast of supporting characters all vividly realized. I was no longer rolling my eyes at “ugh, another conversation in a sitting room……..” but instead I was locked into those conversations, laughing at the keen observations flying around and enjoying the lives playing out in front of me.
It is this, I think, that makes Austen so important. Her ability to light the ordinary in such a way as to make it seem delightful is a keen skill – and her way of cultivating romance is, of course, unparalleled.
Which is why I maybe was so shaken by Mansfield Park. Man, I didn’t love that book. No, I did not. It was still well-written and it could, I suppose, be argued that my vehement irritation is a testament to Austen’s writing abilities (that is, she can provoke strong reactions whatever they might be). But I still, to this day, good god, cannot stand thinking of Fanny Price. I spent much of my review mulling over how Janeites today can square this novel with Austen’s other work, in terms of feminism and the like. Women like Lizzy Bennett and Emma Woodhouse and even Anne Elliot are striking because they are bold, confident women in one way or another. Anne is getting older and she’s okay with that, Emma is a mess but she’s endearing as hell, and what is there to say about Lizzy Bennett that hasn’t been said already? But Fanny Price stands out like a sore thumb, a sore thumb that probably complains not only about how sore it is but how the other fingers on the hand are behaving. MAN, she is annoying.
But also, I was finding strange connections at this point between Dickens and Austen. Reading “out of order”, in a sense, led me to continually being thinking of Austen in a Dickensian light – when, in reality, it was the other way ’round. Dickens was so clearly inspired by Austen and this novel I think most of all (Mansfield Park) is the key. The scene near the end back in Portsmouth… Well, I would bet that Dickens owed Austen a debt for that scene alone. Yessir, I would.
Anyway, moving on from that dodgy novel experience, I found Sense and Sensibility rather surprising. I didn’t expect the pairings and I didn’t really expect the main thrust of the story to be the friendship between the two older Dashwood sisters (poor Margaret). I rather wonder whether, if I’d read this first (before P&P), I might’ve found that novel more engaging because of this one. But this one also felt like the pinnacle of what those disapproving female friends always told me about Austen: it’s just fun. It’s girls being girls, boys being boys, and there’s nothing on the line more than love. “More than love, sir?” “Women” “Ah, yes, women.”
….sorry. Sweeney does pop out sometimes.
Anyway, this brings me to my favorite – yes, I said it, my favorite – Austen novel: Northanger Abbey. Maybe it’s because of the silly faux-Gothic tropes scattered all over the place, maybe it’s just because I felt like Austen was having more fun writing this novel than any of the others (in terms of what seeps into the page itself)… but I adored it. Yes, it is pulpier and frothier than the others. Yes, it doesn’t quite have the same heft in terms of critical appreciation… but romance isn’t the main thrust of this plot and Austen’s work is better for it.
Plus, this book is hilarious. I don’t know why but I found it just laugh-out-loud funny a lot of the time. There was something almost screwball about it and I, for one, appreciated that (along with the balls and the romance and the biting wit that are indicative of every Austen novel).
But on the flip side, different isn’t necessarily always better. I ended my run through Austen’s ouvre with Persuasion, her final novel, and one that definitely stands a bit a part from the other novels. It’s a more mature piece of fiction, a story that feels like a turning point for Austen’s writing. Perhaps it was just having characters who are a bit older (and as a result a bit less flighty and girly) but there was something I now see as bordering on melancholic about the novel. Not that it was sad, not really – the romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth is one of the most heartfelt and believable (love that blooms not from a summer but rather love that sustains over years, unrequited though it may then be) she’s ever written and their union at the end is a happy one. But Austen’s restraint (and her ever-sharpening wit towards the characters she didn’t like, like Sir Walter) made this book feel very different. A true winter book, I suppose.
Conclusion: I’m sorry it has taken me so long to read Ms. Austen’s work. I have visited Bath, been dragged around by perhaps the biggest Janeite I know, and I wish I could go back to appreciate it more directly. I now understand just what it is about Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. I get it, re: the Dashwood sisters. While her writing can, yes, be boring or a bit sleepy sometimes (come on, people – I challenge any Austen reader to’ve not, at some point, said “ugh, really, another ball?” or “wait, is anyone actually talking about anything important right now?”), she is also capable of the most marvelous warmth and love. To see her characters fall into each others’ arms is, indeed, a lasting joy of the English Lit canon – as well it should be. I do not know that I will revisit these novels, as I know many of my female friends will – but I know that I am a better reader and writer (and, perhaps, a better person) for having read them. If nothing else, I can laugh at my life when it mirrors Emma’s or arch an eyebrow approvingly/judgingly when someone accuses me of being like Darcy. In the truest spirit of the Ten Year Catch-Up, there is a gap that has been filled. And now, onward!