Every decade since I was a teenager I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels — first in my late teens, then in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I’ve been wondering if I’d do it again in my 50’s, as my 60th birthday is later this summer, and during a recent visit to my parents’ house noted again the collection of Jane Austen my mother has in a bookshelf in the bedroom where David and I were sleeping. I’d brought a few books with me to read on our long weekend of family beach time, but decided to pick up the volume that included Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Hours later I was well into Northanger Abbey, and within a few days had read both novels. Now I’ve finished Sense and Sensibility, spending a good part of Monday reading, because at one point I couldn’t get anything done without knowing exactly how things turned out for sisters Elinor and Marianne, one so full of sense, one so open with her sensibilities.
“What is it about Jane Austen that makes you so eager to get to the end of a book you’re reading for the fifth time?” David asked me.
Yes, what is so satisfying about these novels? Is it a reminder of my youth, when reading strong stories of young women’s aspirations and loves seemed a reflection of my own life, even if in a very different setting? The focused attention on personality, temperament, kindness, manners and good sense, the well structured plots with just enough surprises to keep the action fresh, the well drawn characters who display every aspect of both admirable and abominable behavior, and the way in which all the heroines learn something about themselves before the satisfying conclusion of found love with a worthy man, makes a great read. “Is Jane Austen the high-class precursor to chick lit?” David went on to ask.
Just before starting this latest immersion into the world of early 19th century England from the point of view of young women overcoming some disadvantage of fortune, sense, or family to shine as they should, I came across the blog of British writer Matt Haig. In a wonderful entry titled Some Fucking Writing Tips (very funny and very indulgent of his yearning to drop f-bombs all over a blog), I particularly enjoyed tip #10. “Stories are fucking easy. PLOT OF EVERY BOOK EVER: Someone is looking for something. COMMERCIAL VERSION: They find it. LITERARY VERSION: They don’t find it. (That’s fucking it.)”
Talking with my friend John the next day, I mentioned I was reading Jane Austen again (he grimaced) and also told him the Matt Haig tip. We talked about how Jane Austen’s work would be classified. “I guess in Jane Austen’s novels the heroines do find what they’re looking for,” I said, “but not before they grow up. Which makes the books both commercial and literary.”
Last night I started Mansfield Park. While I don’t remember exactly what happens to young cousin Fanny as the book progresses, I’m sure she’s going to grow up, struggle with worries about love and fortune and her future, and in the end be rewarded with a life equal to her growing sense of herself, her understanding of what is right and wrong at the most central level of living as a righteous and caring person, and her kindness to others. Sounds like a bit of a grind, but it won’t be. I love it already.