Reading Jane Austen

Sunday, September 13, 2009 Permalink

Earlier this year I spent a month at fat camp. That’s a whole other blog post, but I knew I’d be exhausted every night and need something to keep me sane. With my luggage allowance limited I decided therefore, to take with me a book I’d been given a decade before but had yet to open.

The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, as the title suggests, comprises (all) seven of Jane’s completed novels.  Four of these (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma) were published during her lifetime and two after her death (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.).  The seventh novel in the tome includes an early composition titled Lady Susan.

Dare I admit that it was the first time I’d read Jane Austen?  I have seen many of the books translated onto celluloid, both on the big and small screen.  Like hordes of others, the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice is a favourite of mine (and not just for the Colin Firth-coming-out-of-the-water-in-his-wet-shirt factor).

jane austen

But on paper, Austen’s writing is not what I imagined.  She was surely a fan of the why-say-something-in-10 words-if-you-can-say-it-in-100 school of writing.  Of course I realise that her turns of phrase must reflect the era in which she lived; where the conversations and commentaries were incredibly polite, and where passive voice was appreciated (unlike my computer’s grammar-checks!).

So much of her narrative is buried in lengthy and meandering paragraphs.  The challenge this provides me is of my own making and requires me to confess to a terrible (terrible) habit.  I skim-read.  I commonly scan a page quickly until I find what I need, which I suspect is how I can read so quickly and prolifically.  As someone who enjoys writing (note that I would not describe myself as a writer) I understand that this is an affront to writers and authors who painstakingly piece together words and lyrical prose to entertain readers.

Austen has been analysed and critiqued to death and I’m far from qualified to jump on that bandwagon; but I found my interest piqued by her work and her life (a lifelong ‘spinster’) like me.

Certainly she was able to write about love and romance, about loss and heartbreak.  Many of her female characters were strong and independent women, her men seemingly either pleasant and outgoing or strong and silent.  But she did not pull punches in developing some flighty, vacuous or socially and financially-ambitious characters—both male and female.  Though I said I wouldn’t extrapolate to Austen’s own personality, I have to say it is clear that, as a woman and as a writer, she did not suffer fools gladly.

Though I know little of her life (and can’t be bothered researching, cos… HELLO?!), it seems that she based much of her writing on her own experiences and on those around her.  She is reputed to have fallen in love once or twice.  Firstly to Tom Lefroy – the more public of her dalliances, but her sister wrote of a subsequent relationship (when Jane was 30) where the man in question died suddenly.  Apparently she later accepted a proposal from a wealthy landowner but rescinded her acceptance the next morning and was devastated by the whole episode.

Jane’s wit and sarcastic prose are evidence of her intelligent and observant life, but I wonder about her level of cynicism.  It seems she would have been comfortable around men and gotten to know them well—with seven brothers and male boarders at the family rectory.  Indeed, as I described earlier she often pulled no punches when developing her male / female characters.

I found it mildly disturbing when she switched from third person to a first person narrative style.  As an example, near the end of Mansfield Park, and the tale of Fanny Price, Austen writes, “My Fanny indeed at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything….”  As if there has been a narrator present between the pages all along.

Similarly, once we past the crisis in the storyline, she wraps the novel up quickly – rather than allow us to bask in the ‘happily-ever-after’ ending.  As if she became bored with the story – and Mr Darcy again asks Elizabeth to marry him, she says yes, blah blah and they live happily ever after.  This style coupled with her occasional popping in as the narrator makes it seem as if she is relaying a true account and feels obliged to fit a lot of detail in the final pages to be true to the subject at hand.

Perhaps it is her lack of ‘happily-ever-after’ that caused her to gloss over that bit in her novels.  Perhaps she just got bored with her characters.  Who knows?  What surprised me was what page-turners the novels were (with the exception of Lady Susan – written as a series of letters and when Jane was only 20yrs old – so I will forgive her that one).

The novels have reignited my interest in Jane and I have since re-watched some TV/movie adaptations of her work.  Indeed, the tome will also become one of my many novels which I will read over and over again.

I suspect I thought of Jane Austen as some sort of Barbara Cartland of her era.  Instead I am struck by how clever she was and how insightful her social commentary was given the role she was afforded in a society in which her name could not even appear on her published manuscripts.

Jane was 41 years old when she died in 1817.  And that makes me sad—her life and potential snuffed out prematurely.  And the question going begging…. I’m walked this earth longer than Jane and what have I got to show for it?

Any Jane Austen fans out there?

  • @Kanga_Rue
    July 10, 2013

    I love Austen & have read all the novels (bar Lady Susan, which I may forgo after your description). I do agree with all you’ve said though – especially the Colin Firth comments! The descriptions can be verbose, but I find it forgivable due to the wit within.

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