Most of us are acquainted with the work of Jane Austen. It is hard to imagine that there is anyone out there who has escaped seeing a television or film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice or Emma or Mansfield Park, or even modernised adaptations such as Clueless or Bridget Jones’ Diary. But comparatively few have experienced the delight of falling into the immersive world of Austen’s finely crafted pages.
Perhaps some are put off by the language. If this applies to you, then let me debunk the myth that Austen is hard to read; it is not. The only issues arising in terms of language is that a few terms and colloquialisms have slipped into obscurity, for example the names of different carriages or items of clothing or card games. This, however, is easily remedied by a quick Google. If you can’t be bothered with a speedy internet search then it is of little matter – whatever linguistic barriers presented by 19th century English is minimal enough not to alter your enjoyment of the novel.
Another thing that I think puts people off is the idea that Austen’s novels are all nothing more than sappy love stories. True, the linchpin of the majority – if not all – of Austen’s books is romance, but there is far more to them than that. For example, Pride and Prejudice looks at the relationship between sisters and pre-conceived ideas of people we don’t know, Northanger Abbey is a Gothic tale with twists of a ghost story, Emma (the inspiration for cult classic teen flick Clueless) is a tale of friendship – and all contain elements of satire as written criticisms of the societal zeitgeist of Austen’s age. Indeed, there is not a single Austen novel that I have read that has not made me laugh out loud.
Furthermore, some people believe that the age of Austen’s work makes it irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remove the frilly dresses, big houses and pianofortes, and the heroines of Austen’s literary worlds are the same at their cores as young women now. We can all identify with at least one aspect of Austen’s heroines. We can all find ourselves by losing ourselves in a Jane Austen novel.
There is a bit of Austen’s own short life in each of her novels.
She was born in 1775 to fairly well-off parents, landing her firmly in the middle class – the same as most of her heroines. She had six brothers and one sister, the latter of which she was incredibly close too – another thing reflected in her novels, as most of her heroines have fantastic relationships with their sisters, eg Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice. Of her brothers, one acted as her literary agent and informant of London society; he was called Henry.
For a brief time she went to boarding school, but this was soon found to be too expensive for the Austen family. She finished her own education by taking it upon herself to do extensive reading. Her father was keen to encourage her to both read and write, giving her the run of his library and buying her expensive writing paper and pens.
In December 1795, at the age of twenty, Austen met and fell in love with a young Irish man called Tom Lefroy, the nephew of a neighbour. There is strong evidence that they had an affair and loved each other very much. Alas, Lefroy’s family didn’t approve of Jane and so sent Tom away in January 1796. Jane Austen never married, despite having an offer of marriage in later life.
Pride and Prejudice, written when Austen was just 21, is arguably the most famous of Jane’s novels. It was at first declined by publishers in 1797. Her first book – Sense and Sensibility – wasn’t published until 1811, and was done so anonymously; the only information given to the reader about the author was that it was ‘By A Lady’.
She died in 1817 at the age of 41 in Winchester, most likely of bovine tuberculosis. She is buried at Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England. A further two books were published after her death-Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
For fans of: satire, costume dramas, fairytale romance, history lessons, getting lost in a world so well-written it feels real, sarcasm, feminism
If you only read one book by her make it: Northanger Abbey