“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” – Jane Austen
At a time when most novels were melodramatic and ridiculous, Jane Austen wrote novels that forever changed the idea of what novels should be. Though still frequently marketed to women, anyone can enjoy Austen. Her characters have distinctive personalities. Her plots are not overly complicated. And her writing style is enjoyable and witty, even after almost two hundred years. It also lends itself well to adaptation as evidenced by the many films and numerous remakes of each of the novels.
I have read all of Jane Austen (except some of her juvenilia; I haven’t been able to locate a collection of it that I really liked). I’ve actually read most of it two and three times. Last summer a bunch of friends and I created our own Jane Austen book club and yes, there were even a few males in our group who wound up enjoying Austen’s work more than they anticipated. My final semester before graduation I lucked out when one of the English professors decided to try running a Jane Austen class. Most of our book club turned around and took the class together too.
Since she only completed six novels, it’s easy to say that I recommend them all. But if I had to rank them in some fashion it would have to be as follows:
Persuasion – I love this short novel and the message of hope it carries. The supporting characters are hilarious in their vanity, hypochondria, and smug ambitions. The heroine is Austen’s oldest and it shows that love can be found at any age. It also shows that age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand and that even friends with the best intentions aren’t always right.
Pride and Prejudice – For me it’s pretty much tied with Persuasion and is at the top of most lists for her best novel. The pacing and organization of this novel make it easy to read (over and over again). Containing some of Austen’s most memorable and beloved characters, from Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet, and of course, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, two of the greatest romantic leads of all time, Pride and Prejudice shows that our first impressions of others aren’t always correct and that our best match might be someone who reveals to us our own short comings.
Northanger Abbey – This novel of Austen’s, though published after her death along with Persuasion, was actually among the first she ever wrote. Critics love the way that Austen pokes fun at the typical novels of her time for their melodrama and fancy but also criticize the way the second half seems to fall into some of those same patterns. Many find Catherine Morland unbelievable or silly but I love her blind naivety and find it charming. She’s one of my favorite heroines. If read lightheartedly instead of seriously, Northanger Abbey can easily be a favorite.
Sense and Sensibility – It’s only down this far because of how much I love the others. I don’t care as much for the supporting characters, but the main Dashwood sisters and their struggles are just as engaging as those of Austen’s other heroines.
Emma – Though it’s a favorite for many, it isn’t for me. I liked it better the second time I read it, but Emma is a character who grates on my nerves. And then there’s the ick factor. I’ve been in many debates about the Knightley/Emma pairing and though valid points are made, it still doesn’t work for me. I’m a great fan of Jane Fairfax’s character, though. Trying to figure out what the story would be like if we had a glimpse into her mind is my favorite part.
Mansfield Park – I’m not sure what Austen was trying to do with this novel and I don’t think I’ll understand it no matter how many times I read it. I just can’t stand Fanny Price and it isn’t because she’s judgmental or a push over or anything like that. She just doesn’t do anything (and I know there are those who defend her by saying that she’s acting through her inaction but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to me). There’s so much build up to events that fail to happen, which is fine here and there but the repetition of it gets old fast.
As far as I’m concerned, each of the novels ends on its last page. The sequels and alternate versions of events that seem to be taking over the shelves are the work of pretenders who need to have more confidence in their own writing and ideas. Post them online as fanfiction where they belong but please, stop trying to profit from someone else’s characters and stories. I don’t see how it’s any different than if someone tried to publish their own 8th Harry Potter