My relationship with Jane Austen is, I think, a bit complicated. I read all of her works in my early teens, and mostly didn’t like them very much. I think I was too young for them, and moved onto Wuthering Heights, which (rather worryingly, when considered as a commentary on my teenage mental health) I thought was much more realistic and enjoyable. Although I absolutely loved Mansfield Park, and thought Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were okay, I have to admit that my analysis didn’t go much deeper than that. Elizabeth Bennet was the type of girl of whom I was always profoundly jealous, with her beauty and extraordinary social ease, and as a result I decided that she was ‘uppity’; I thought Anne Eliot was far too good for Captain Wentworth, and was subsequently disappointed with her fate; I was so irritated with Lucy Steele that the rest of Sense and Sensibility was lost on me… you get the idea. I wasn’t a fan, and I certainly couldn’t see why they were considered such literary masterpieces. I quite liked the various BBC miniseries that had been produced over the years, but almost guiltily, because I thought Austen was basically chick lit.
There you have it: my Jane Austen confession. However, that is absolutely not the end of the story. I recently bought the Pulp! The Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice, entirely on impulse, and gave it a reread. The cover is amazing and I want to highlight it:
(Do I really need to issue a spoiler alert for Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sure. Spoilers below).
Somehow, the humour without opened my eyes to the humour within: the sarcasm and wordplay, the absurd and the ridiculous, the uniqueness of each character’s voice. I was also far more aware, during this read, how inaccurate it is to dismiss P&P as chick lit. I was struck with the cruelty with which Mr Bennet treats his wife, particularly the way that Elizabeth has to acknowledge his failings in order to get past her own. Charlotte Lucas received a lot more sympathy from me this time round, and I liked the fact that Austen portrays her decisions with respect. Although she is clearly intended as a foil for Elizabeth, to show what kind of life Elizabeth rejected when she turned down Collins, it took a different kind of strength for Charlotte to accept his proposal. I noticed that much more clearly than I had done in the past: Charlotte purposefully choosing her own fate, accepting the good and the bad that comes along with it, instead of drifting aimlessly into it (as I’d previously thought). I could certainly see the way that the various adaptations I’ve watched over the years have coloured my reading of the book. Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennet, in particular, has stuck with me; I heard her voice for every line spoken by Elizabeth’s mother throughout the book. I think that this is one of those rare instances where having seen the adaptation enhanced my reading of the novel.
So, having reread Pride and Prejudice and absolutely loved it (5 stars on Goodreads), I decided that it was time to revisit the rest of Austen’s works, and with slightly less baggage this time. Having made that decision, I coincidentally stumbled across Austen in August, which is being hosted by Lost Generation Reader. This is an entire month dedicated to geeking out about Austen (ahem, though it’s put more eloquently than that in the masterpost linked previously). People watch and read adaptations of Austen’s novels, books about Austen, books about Austen’s books, etc. Then they blog about the experience. I love this fantastic book blogger community, and this certainly seems like a party that I want to join in with. (It’s my favourite kind of party, where there’s lots of good tea, and quite a bit of cake, and nobody complains if you sit in the corner with a book because everyone is sitting in the corner with a book).
This month, I will be rereading Lady Susan and Mansfield Park. It will be particularly interesting to see whether I still love the latter as much as I did when I was a teenager, given that it’s most people’s least favourite of the six novels. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I love epistolary fiction and collections of letters, so I’m very excited about rereading Lady Susan. If I have time, I also fancy a reread of Sense and Sensibility and Emma.
Also, I’m going to rewatch Bridget Jones’ Diary this evening. Austen in August is as good an excuse as any. As if I need one.