During my last semester of high school, our English teacher gave us what was to be our final assignment for her class: pick a classic author off her approved list, read three of their books, & write a paper. I wasn’t concerned about the assignment; obviously I liked to read, but also with an entire semester to finish it, I figured it would be smooth sailing.
I was wrong.
I chose Jane Austen because: 1) I wanted to read work by a woman, and 2) she was the first woman on the alphabetized list. Plus I’d seen the 1996 film adaptation of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow & Toni Collette, so I thought I knew what to expect. I picked up Emma for the first book, expecting to breeze right through it.
Within 50 pages, I was dying. I was bored out of my mind. Everybody was worried about their clothes or what they had for breakfast or who liked who–it was just like high school, except a million times more tedious. And so I abandoned Emma, vowing to get back to her soon.
Except I kind of never really did. With graduation looming, preparations for leaving for college underway, & our long-awaited senior trip to San Diego fast approaching, I never did get around to finishing even one of Austen’s books, let alone three. Out of desperation, I wrote my English paper at the last minute based on info I got from CliffsNotes. By the time it was returned to me with a big, red “C” on the top, I’d already forgotten it. There was just too much else going on for me to care about my grades or Jane Austen.
I’ve grown up some since then (though how much is up for debate), & with a new appreciation for classic novels, I thought it was well past time I give Jane Austen her due. I decided to read three of her books to fulfill the assignment I abandoned during the excitement of my senior year.
First up was Northanger Abbey. It’s the story of sheltered 17 year-old Catherine Morland as she leaves her home for the first time to go stay in Bath. There she meets the handsome Henry Tilney and is introduced to society by her new friend Isabella Thorpe. But when she’s invited to stay at the Tilney’s home, Northanger Abbey, she learns that life doesn’t always play out like one of her beloved Gothic novels.
Though there was still quite a lot of focus on the things I remembered from my brief sojourn with Emma (clothes, breakfast, who likes who, etc.), there’s cleverness & humor at every turn that completely escaped me when I was 17.
“To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”
Was I even a little surprised in how the story ended? No. Was I annoyed that the characters who are jerks never get what’s coming to them? Yes. Though it was slow at times (and I’ve had enough discussion of muslin to last the rest of my life), this was my favorite of the three novels I read.
Next up was Mansfield Park. I’m just gonna say it: I hated this one. With a passion. A large part of that is probably due to the fact that I listened to it as an audiobook, but the one I unknowingly got was a fully-dramatized production with an entire voice cast, background music, sound FX, etc. It was basically a soap opera only I couldn’t see the fake tans.
This novel tells the story of young Fanny Price who is sent to live with her wealthy aunt & uncle at their estate, Mansfield Park. There she’s abused by pretty much everyone except cousin Edmund, & she naturally falls head over heels in love with him. She grows up timid & with a low self-esteem, but when even more drama comes to Mansfield Park in the form of Henry & Mary Crawford (brother-sister troublemakers), will everyone finally realize the worth of Fanny?
Spoiler: No, not really.
If there is humor & cleverness in this book, it was lost on me. That very well may be due to the way the performers played things, but this was basically 8 or so hours of everyone yelling at Fanny because things are somehow her fault, & then Fanny agreeing with them in a mousy voice. Would I feel differently about this story if I’d read it myself? I’m not sure, but I did learn one thing–never again will I pick a dramatized audiobook!
Last up is Persuasion. This is the story of the Elliot family (father Sir Walter & daughters Elizabeth, Anne, & Mary) as they are forced to move out of their family estate & relocate to Bath to cut costs. The plot is familiar Austen territory: false-starts & dashed hopes in relationships that eventually lead to happy endings, but Persuasion stands out because Anne, the protagonist, is a bit older (having lost “the bloom of youth”). Despite this, she has not resigned herself to the life of an old maid.
“Anne hoped she had outlived the age of blushing; but the age of emotion she certainly had not.”
I think this is notable because not only does romance in fiction tend to be the territory of the young, but Austen herself was never married. Persuasion was Austen’s final completed novel, & it was published six months after her death at age 41. Was she still holding out hope for love? Did she give Anne the happy ending she wanted for herself? Or was she just putting together a good story?
In the end, I’m glad I was able to make amends to Austen. I can’t really say I enjoyed her novels as a whole, although I did like various aspects of them. Perhaps the concerns of people who don’t have anything better to do but sit around & gossip were never really going to be enough to keep me interested, but at least now I’ve read them for myself. My CliffNotes days are behind me.
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