July 30, 2013

Starting Jane Austen

It's been a while since my last post related to my START HERE project, but I've been proceeding with the next couple of authors, though it's taken a while to finish in the midst of all my other reading, writing, and conference-attending.

I started reading Jane Austen prior to embarking on this project, but it was only last year. When I read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a classic that I actually enjoyed.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is funny. It has a nicely constructed plot that keeps the story moving along in a compelling way. It offers a look at the stifling social customs of 200 years ago, and while these are strange and foreign to readers today, the commentary on the annoying ways people behave is perfectly relevant and identifiable. (For those familiar with the book, I recommend this Slate Book Club discussion of the story and why it remains popular.)

The reading pathway for Austen, suggested by Amanda Nelson, starts with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and puts PRIDE AND PREJUDICE second. Now that I've read SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I have to disagree with that ordering, because if it had been my first Austen, I wouldn't have the same feeling of finally understanding why her work has stood up through time.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is Austen's first novel, and maybe that's why it didn't hold my attention nearly as well as her next book. I often found the story slow going, and I wasn't as invested in the outcomes of the various romances that form the plot.

Still, the sarcastic social commentary is in there and is the book's big strength. I enjoyed cringing along with the main character as she experiences the unpleasantness of being forced to spend time with tiresome people. I just would have preferred that the novel didn't dwell quite so long on making this point.

I guess I haven't mentioned what either of these novels are about. Most people are probably already aware that both focus on the question of who is going to marry who, while demonstrating the economic importance to an upper-class woman of making a good match. In my opinion these aren't particularly romantic stories -- the characters never have an opportunity to get to know each very well before declaring their love, because that's how society worked at the time -- so I don't recommend either reading or rejecting Austen based on whether you're interested in a love story. The books are really about how a particular part of the social structure works and how people manage to find even a little bit of love within its constraints.

The third book in the pathway is EMMA. I do intend to read it, but not right away.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ann Morgan completed A Year of Reading the World and relates what she learned from the experience: "In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes." (Thanks, Louise!)

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