Even though I was an English major as an undergrad, I didn’t read one Jane Austen novel until after I received my degree! I have a picture from my senior year Literary London class trip of myself in front of Austen’s house in England, smiling like I knew what I was standing in front of. Ha. I remember fellow classmates at college talking about her books (and movies), and I knew I was missing out on something. Truly, I almost felt like I had committed an English major sin of omission . . . wait . . . nope, that was when I didn’t finish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . . . which would be a sin of commission. Anyway, I felt a tinge of English major guilt because of my lack of expertise on Austen novels; yet, I assert that I haven’t always been as strong a reader as I am now. Yes, truly, I struggle (at times) through each of Austen’s books. I’m not afraid to admit that. If I can’t understand how to struggle with reading, how will I be able to help my struggling readers in class?
Anyway, my first Austen reading experience was during my second year as a teacher when I checked out the old blue dusty hardback from our high school’s library. I was determined to comprehend it without resorting to watching the famous “faithful” 1995 film adaptation I’d heard so much about. I had seen portions of director Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice in college, so that was an aid to understanding, but soon it didn’t really matter because Austen carried me away with the suspense of when Elizabeth would see Darcy again and what she would say to him. It became my favorite book, even if I didn’t understand it completely. I loved the caricature of Mrs. Bennet, the sense of Elizabeth, and the mystery of Mr. Darcy. I loved the exquisite English grammar. I loved the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Oh, the irony! After reading this novel, I decided I would eventually read all of Austen’s novels.
Not too much later, I became an “expert” on Pride and Prejudice. I read The Annotated Pride and Prejudice (the novel on the left page, footnotes on the right page!) for my 19th Century British Women’s Lit. and Film and Lit. classes, and now I have taught the book three times so far. Austen’s wit is the best part of her literature, but to understand some of her best jabs at the English gentry, you almost have to have annotations telling you facts like this: blue was the fashionable color of mens’ coats in 1813. Or this: a ragout (pronounced ragu, like the spaghetti sauce) would have been out of fashion to have for the evening meal among high society. Studying the book more deeply helped me appreciate it even more, and each Austen novel has been easier for me to enjoy because of my knowledge about England in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
This January, I made a New Year’s resolution to read the rest of Austen by the end of the year. I finished (finally; it took me a few restarts) Sense and Sensibility while in Sierra Leone (which was quite a stark contrast), and I’m happy to report that I didn’t have any assistance in understanding the story. My copy of Emma Thompson’s film adaptation stayed in its plastic wrap until I was finished with the novel!
I just finished Persuasion this past week, and I have a lot to say about it. I bought it at a bookstore in 2009 but didn’t read it until this summer, which happens to be the very best time in my life for me to read that book. Don’t you love it when that happens? Look for a book review soon!
So, here’s my progress:
Pride and Prejudice (Fall 2007)
Emma (Spring 2008)
Sense and Sensibility (June 2014)
Persuasion (June 2014)
Mansfield Park (next!)
Northanger Abbey (need to purchase)
Sandition (need to purchase)
To finish my musings on Austen and Me, I want to encourage those of you who haven’t read an Austen novel to give it a shot, especially if you have seen any of the film adaptations. You will find that the characters in these novels are the characters in your very own lives, male or female, rich or poor, old or young. Austen’s insight into human nature and the way society works (fairly or unfairly) is applicable to today’s world, no matter how different it may seem.