Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Austen Convert

Currently Reading: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes

I have a slight confession to make: I have never really been a Jane Austen fan. (Please don't hate me. I understand this is tantamount to murder in some circles, but I must be honest here.) Of course her books are interesting and well-written, but none of them (except perhaps Sense & Sensibility) really excited or captivated me. Her characters always seemed two-dimensional and unrealistic; I couldn't identify them with anyone I had actually met in the real world. The plots, frankly, tend to be a bit boring and predictable; with some variation on characters and situations, they usually follow the same recipe.

The only Jane Austen book I ever found myself truly enjoying was Sense & Sensibility. I read it two summers ago and actually fell in love with the characters of Elinor and Marianne. For once, two Austen characters I could identify with! That summer, I found myself enthralled with an Austen, which I had never thought possible. Sense & Sensibility revived my interest in Austen and made me resolve to read and re-read more in the future. Several weeks ago, my "classics itch" set in with the onset of cooler weather and I decided on Northanger Abbey as my classic of choice. With only two more Austen's to read, I settled on Northanger because my sister, whose judgment on books I trust wholeheartedly, had enjoyed it.


Remind me to always listen to my sister. Not only was Northanger Abbey enjoyable, it literally made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Yes, the plot follows a similar thread as Austen's other works, but the difference for me lay in the character of Catherine and the tone of the writing. For the first time, I felt like Jane Austen was fully present, as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a published work. She was not invisible within the work, but right there with me, providing witty comments and often extremely humorous and even snide comments about the characters or the circumstances. I found myself thrilled to travel with her from Fullerton to Bath to Northanger, my 19th century travel companion. How could I have ever thought her boring and predictable before? Here she was, in the flesh, each tongue-in-cheek comment leaving me in a small fit of giggles.

For instance: “She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance - a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” 

Or this one:  “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another- we are an injured body.” 

And finally: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” 

These don't include the myriad of other slight "asides" slipped into a conversation or a description that caught me completely off-guard but really did delight me in the reading of them.

Because of Catherine, because of Northanger, I can now say that I really am a Jane Austen fan. In one short book, I feel as though I came to know her intimately as a writer, a woman, and a person. The plot is good and the characters interesting, but the writing is what really swept me away. I think I'm going to have to make a new spot on my shelf.

What's your favorite Jane Austen? Is anyone else a Jane Austen convert, like I am? Which book converted you? I'd love to know!


  1. I'm an Austen convert!! I read and disliked Pride & Prejudice. When I read it a second time (after reading Tomalin's biography on Austen) I saw SO MUCH MORE in it. Then I read Persuasion, then S & S, then Northanger Abbey (which had me laughing aloud, too!)

    I think there is much depth to characters who are fashioned to appear shallow, for Austen's amusement (I'm guessing.) My Romantic lit professor said that she was a Romantic writer forced to write for the rich people to make a living. They read her work thinking it was the idiotic love stories they craved, when really she was asking "Where is your rage?" Since that class I've wanted to "know" her. I have a feeling I will like Mansfield Park, since most people don't. But S & S is my lifelong favorite. If feels like "mine." :)

    1. Mabel, I'm so glad I'm not the only convert! :) One of the Austen's I have thought about re-reading is Pride & Prejudice, because I was so disappointed in it the first time I read it. I'm glad to hear you had a better experience. Persuasion is the last Austen I still have to read. And I hear you on S&S... have you seen any of the movies? The newest BBC adaptation is exquisite!

    2. And thank you for that insight from your professor! I love hearing the scholarly world's take on books like these. Austen was definitely smarter and wittier than I've ever given her credit for in the past.

  2. I'm someone who's always enjoyed Austen, but has grown to really appreciate her depth and technique over the last few years, rereading her novels, reading critical essays, etc. I used to underestimate "Northanger Abbey", but the more I return to it, the more delighted with it I become. When my family and I moved this year, I labelled my boxes of history books "Real solemn history - the quarrels of popes and kings" etc.
    Btw, I tried commenting on some other posts and it didn't work. But I just wanted you to know I appreciate your wonderful, beautifully written posts on "Jane Eyre" so much. My own relationship with that novel is similarly deep.

  3. Pride and Prejudice was the first novel by Jane Austen that I read. I am also a big fan of the '95 adaptation! I've read all of her novels except Northanger Abbey. I found Mansfield Park a little dull but I may give it another try one day. I love Jane Austen's novels and adaptations. :)


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