Thursday, August 5, 2021

Austen in August: Notes from an Austen Newbie

Portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister, Cassandra

For some reason, I completely missed Austen in high school and college. I know almost nothing about this author everyone raves about; I know almost nothing about her books that are so beloved.

I am a Newbie to Jane Austen.


I have a lot of questions.


Who was Jane Austen?

What books did she write?
What are her books about?
Why are Jane Austen's books considered classics?
Why do so many people like her books?

Let's see what I can find out.




Who was Jane Austen?


It is generally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists of all time. She lived only forty-one years and never married or left her family home. She wrote and published her novels in the early 1800's when women traditionally lived very small lives centering on their homes and families.




What books did she write?


She only wrote six books that were published in her short life:


Pride and Prejudice  

Sense and Sensibility 
Persuasion 
Mansfield Park 
Northanger Abbey 
Emma



What are her books about?


Austen scholar Debra Teachman writes, "Her novels are often considered to focus only on the lives of a few individuals in a few families living, for the most part, in rather confined and conservative country towns."


Author Carol Shields describes Jane Austen's novels as being "about intelligent women who take themselves seriously, but not solemnly."


Book critic William Deresiewicz describes in his book A Jane Austen Education what he took from each of Jane Austen's books: from Emma, he learns about everyday matters; from Pride and Prejudice, about growing up; from Northanger Abbey, about learning to learn; from Mansfield Park, being good; from Persuasion, true friends; and from Sense and Sensibility, falling in love. From Jane Austen, he says, he learned, in short, "things that really matter."



Why are Jane Austen's books considered classics?

As Nicholas Dames wrote in a 2017 article in the Atlantic, "Austen has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet." 


Author J.B. Priestley finds that Jane Austen is able to examine people with a "cool though sparkling" detachment. He notes that she creates "a tiny world of her own" in which she "coolly and exquisitely present(s) us with her version of the perpetual human comedy, in which we all have to play our parts." Priestley affirms that that is what makes Jane Austen a great novelist.


"Jane Austen's work," author Carol Shields writes, "revolves around the fusing of moral seriousness with comic drama." She goes on to say, "The family was the source of her art....It might be argued that all literature is ultimately about family, the creation of structures---drama, poetry, fiction---that reflect our immediate and randomly assigned circle of others, what families do to us and how they can be reimagined or transcended."


Debra Teachman notes that Austen expanded the concept of a novel, a form of writing that was just developing during Austen's time, to that of a key literary form. Austen herself defined the best of novels as "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."




Why do so many people like her books?


"Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities," writes Dames.


Austen, Lionel Trilling observed, is “congenial to the modern person who feels himself ill-accommodated by his own time.”



Renowned scholar A.C. Bradley finds the humor in Austen's novels to be one of her chief appeals to the reader. He writes, "Jane Austen regards the characters, good and bad alike, with ironical amusement, because they never see the situation as it really is and as she sees it. This is the deeper source of our unbroken pleasure in reading her. We constantly share her point of view, and are aware of the amusing difference between the fact and its appearance to the actors."


Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra


What else should I know about Jane Austen? Share your thoughts in the comments.


I explored these reference materials for answers:

Bradley, A.C. ""Jane Austen"." English Association. Cambridge. 1911. Lecture.

Dames, Nicholas. "Jane Austen Is Everything." Atlantic, vol. 320, no. 2, Sept. 2017, pp. 92-103. 

Deresiewicz, William. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike, 2011. Print.

Peltason, Timothy. "Mind and Mindlessness in Jane Austen." Hudson Review, vol. 67, no. 4, Winter2015, pp. 609-633.

Priestley, John Boynton. "Austen Portrays a Small World with Humor and Detachment." Four English Novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960. 78-83. Print.

Shields, Carol. Jane Austen. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Teachman, Debra. Student Companion to Jane Austen. Westport (Conn.): Greenwood, 2000. Print.
          


         To find out more about Austen in August, visit The Book Rat. Reposted from August, 2019. 

13 comments:

  1. I almost envy you going into Austen now. I started at 16 with Pride and Prejudice which was the official text for my O Level Examination for English Literature. (I do not know what would be the American equivalent exam). I fell in love and have stayed in love!

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    1. I can understand the envy. There is something wonderful about experiencing a brilliant author's work for the first time.

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  2. I've always liked Jane Austen, though I've not read all her books. She's one of those writers that I read when young and then read again when I was older and appreciated even more. Her themes are timeless and the fact that so many can be remade as contemporary films (as well as period ones) help show her durability and longevity. SHe was a keen observer of life and people and wrote about them well.

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    1. You are right, I think, Jeanie. Her themes are timeless.

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  3. Now as much as I have heard or Jane Austin I have never read any of her books, not really seen any of the films on them either. Think I may see if I can download one for my Kindle. I see she was born in Steventon (not the one in Oxfordshire) which is about an hour from where I live and looks like good excuse to visit the church in which she worshipped and her farther was the rector of

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    1. Now I like this...I feel like I am sending you off to do research for us. Thank you!

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  4. I read two books of her and didn't like them, I think I didn't even finish it, but at school we had to read at least one !

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  5. thanks for sharing. i definitely recognie the name, but i don't know if i have read any of her work or not since school has been sooooo long ago. lol
    @ fundinmental

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  6. I have a couple of friends that love Jane Austen but it's not really my genre.

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  7. Lovely post Deb, Well-researched, presented in a reader-friendly style, and very educational. I learned quite a lot new about Jane Austin from reading your post.

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  8. i read Pride and prejudice when i was a wee young thing and kept reading it. I've also read Sense and sensibility and possibly Mansfield Park and Emma. It was a long time ago. Jane is timeless for sure! The intrigue, the romance, the society foibles - priceless!

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  9. I've seen various film adaptations and have read four of her books and really enjoy Austen's books. I still need to read P&P and Mansfield Park. One day I'll get to both. Love all the info you shared in this post.

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I love to hear what you think.