The Sunday Salon: How To Read Austen

Well, with my review of Persuasion, I’ve read and reviewed the entire Austen canon—except the unfinished Sandition and The Watsons, of course. (Unfinished works are hardly fair play.) With my Austen author study class under my belt as well, I thought I’d talk about a few things you ought to keep in mind when it comes to Austen—as well as a suggested reading order.

Historical Context

People who aren’t acquainted with Austen tend to think of her as a writer of purely romantic fiction. (Bad news: we live in a world where a movie called “F*cking Jane Austen“, which is about supposedly curing Austen’s apparently ridiculous standards for men with sex, was written. Good news: we live in a world where it wasn’t picked up… for now.) And this isn’t a viewpoint singular to the general population; I attend a women’s college where everyone can at least bond over Harry Potter—incidentally, Rowling cites Austen as one of her inspirations—where I still run into this view.

This is usually because people ignore, downsize, or just plain don’t realize the importance of historical context to Austen—and since she’s writing social satire, that’s very important. There are some subtle things you might miss if you don’t know the time period; for instance, in Pride and Prejudice, the newly married Lydia lords her new status over her elder sisters by entering a particular occasion first—an important detail, since a woman’s status determined what order she entered with a group in. But mainly, I find that this silly notion of Austen as romance fiction (with all the connotations that the modern incarnation of the romance genre brings) is easily dispelled when one realizes just how limited a world women operated in—as Austen makes abundantly clear in Pride and Prejudice, these women have to marry for financial security. Love is just so much gravy.

Authorial Context

As my class wore on into fall (well, the two weeks of fall we did end up having; good work, Georgia!) and we progressed further into Austen’s works, I noticed that we sort of hit a brick wall when it came to Mansfield Park. As our wonderful professor told us, this is probably because Austen’s novels are separated quite cleanly down the middle, written in two very periods of her life.

Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey were written in the 1790s, when Austen was a young woman in her 20s, an eligible young woman dependent on a family that could provide. Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were written by a woman in a very different situation—after Austen’s father died, Austen, her mother, and her beloved sister Cassandra were in just the sort of situation her heroines dread; they were dependent on their relations without a man in the family to provide for them (or any way of providing for themselves). They moved from relation to relation until Austen’s brother provided them with a cottage on his estate, Chawton. In her 30s, without any hope of marriage (which simply translates into a secure financial position for a Regency woman), and industrialization on the rise, it’s not hard to see why Austen wrote Mansfield Park, a novel that can baffle readers by just how closed in it is. (I read it as a conservative backlash and Fanny as a passive-aggressive sadist; whatever works for you, man.)

Reading Order

Now that you’re properly primed for the canon, here’s how I think you ought to go about it—dependent on my tastes, of course. (But that’s something that goes without saying for the whole blog, huh?)

  1. Sense and Sensibility: This novel’s first draft was Austen’s first pass at a novel, and I think it shows—the two main characters (one of whom, I feel, is simply there for her worldview to be punished; her actual romance is handwaved away in the last chapter) and the cruder satire show Austen as a youthful writer. I suppose this is my Gaiman conundrum; if you read it first, it might have a fighting chance against the later (and better!) works.
  2. Pride and Prejudice: If you’re only going to read one Austen novel, this is it. Austen’s satire is wickedly sharp, Elizabeth is witty and wonderful, and the romance is steady and rational. (In short, utterly dreamy for an ace girl like me.) I put this second since no one should have to wait for Austen at her best.
  3. Northanger Abbey: A slim, happy trifle that parodies Gothic fiction with Austen’s youngest heroine, Catherine Morland, who must learn to balance her overactive imagination with reality without robbing herself of the joy of fiction. I’m awfully fond of Northanger Abbey, and I think it would be a great introduction to Austen for YA readers who don’t want to tackle Pride and Prejudice (although readability is, I think, not a problem in Austen’s first three novels).
  4. Persuasion: While I think the distinctions between the two groupings of Austen’s novels should be maintained in any recommended reading order, the simplicity of Persuasion‘s plot makes me want to recommend it as the first of the last three novels. (Anybody else reminded of explaining the Star Wars numbering system to nonfans?) It threw me for a loop after the complexity and length of Emma and Mansfield Park, so I’ll just put it here.
  5. Emma: Oh, Emma, the most polarizing character Austen ever wrote. You’ll either love her or hate her—or both. I hated her on my first reading, and loved her on the second. After having read the novels with more straightforward plots, the complexity of Emma (such as it is) will take some getting used to, but it’s worth it.
  6. Mansfield Park: Oh, this problem child. I recommend last because, quite frankly, it was my least favorite, and I think it shows, more so than Persuasion, Austen’s last novel, some of Austen’s more negative qualities or, at least, thoughts—the degree to which Fanny turns inward and against progress and more liberal society can strike me as downright horrifying at times.

In other news, my reading has been going well—I got through Evening’s Empire and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I’m starting on Conundrum today. I’m not quite done with Christmas shopping, which vexes me, but that’s why we invented crafts, right? I’ve also been watching classic films with my family recently, as well as the always good The Vicar of DibleyThe Manchurian Candidate and the utterly adorable Singing in the Rain.

Orbit is giving away Rachel Aaron’s first three The Legend of Eli Monpress books until tomorrow. Allie at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away a copy of A Royal Likeness until December 31st. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What’s your reading order for Austen, if you’ve got one?

11 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: How To Read Austen

  1. I’ve read three but still haven’t gotten to Northanger Abbey, Emma (Which I’m still deciding if I will try to read again; just never liked it and have never finished it even on three different attempts.), and Mansfield Park. I think Northanger Abbey is next on the Austen list though.

    I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on the books and class insights here. It’s been so enjoyable.

  2. I enjoyed reading your ordered list of the Austen novels and your rationales for each. I agree about Sense and Sensibility – not one of my favorites, and it was the last book I read of Austen’s. I read Pride & Prejudice first, then I think Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey somewhere near each other (loved P&P, would like to revisit Northanger Abbey now, ambivalent about Mansfield Park). Then it was Emma, which I loved first time through (weird). I wasn’t hugely impressed with Persuasion, but I think I would like it better on a re-read. And as I said, Sense and Sensibility was last.

  3. I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels except Mansfield Park and The Sanditons. My favorite is still Pride and Prejudice…

    And F*cking Jane Austen?! It sounds absurd.

  4. I started with P&P and intend to keep revisiting it as I work on the others — I read S&S early this year, Emma in the fall, and I just started Persuasion. I think I’ll do Northanger Abbey last, as I want to read some gothic lit before. So that leaves Mansfield Park next on my Austen list. I’m getting a bit scared.

  5. This will be an excellent reference for me as I tackle me some Jane Austen, hopefully in the near-ish future. As for a reading order, mine is pretty nebulous. Something like: Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, then whichever of the two I didn’t read, then (if I like Austen) all the others. (I’ll probably come back and remind myself of your suggested order if I get that far!)

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