A staple on every household’s bookshelf, Jane Austen is one of the finest authors in the history of English literature. Her novels are famed for their witty style and incisive portrayal of British society during the Regency period of the early nineteenth-century. And deciding that they’re better read than decoratively gathering dust, I have finally, six years after discovering one on the AS-level syllabus, finished the entire canon of works.
Though set in an unfamiliar world two centuries past, the sextet of novels – Sense and Sensibility (1911), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817) and Persuasion (1817) – still feel fresh and familiar. Indeed, though each of the novels’ respective heroines – Elinor and Marianne, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, Catherine and Anne – Austen observes a full range of human behaviours, social realities and emotional truths that resonate timelessly. Having now digested them all, I rate each one, from least favourite onwards, as follows.
For me, Northanger Abbey is the novel which carries the least depth, mainly because its heroine, Catherine Morland, isn’t highly developed enough to be a primary character. It’s probably significant that, while published posthumously, it was one of Austen’s first ever drafts: she was 23 years old when she first started writing it, and youthful sentiments of optimism, hope and naivety pervade the novel. The text is full of very historically specific references, such that one critic has claimed it impossible to appreciate as fully as her others works. The cast of characters errs towards the superficial, but it remains a very playful outing, and the hallmark of a fine author in the making.
Next up, and traditionally the least popular among readers, Mansfield Park is in some respects an unsatisfying novel. The story of Fanny Price, the lowly young girl adopted by her upper class relatives, seems designed for a commentary on class rather than a love story. Austen widens her usual scope by exploring themes ranging from the British slave trade to the value of education. But despite this intriguing backdrop the problem with the novel stems from its heroine, who is at times difficult to like. Her virtue – an unwavering integrity of character amidst the dysfunction, scandals and hypocrisies of the Bertrams – translates to some readers as insipidity, taking some care away from her ‘happy ever after’.
Sense and Sensibility presents an interesting study of personality, and the social decorum expected in the early nineteenth century. The story focuses on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, who represent the extremes of characters featured in the title. Elinor acts with prudence and self-restraint, almost at the expense of losing her beloved Edward Ferrars, while Marianne’s naive impulsiveness sees her spurned by her first lover. Both undergo an endearing journey of maturation, learning the necessity of reaching a happy medium. It’s a heart-warming story, but as Austen’s first published novel, her style (particularly in the opening chapters) is not as eloquent as the later works.
In third place, though seemingly everybody’s favourite, is Pride and Prejudice. Austen is at her wittiest, her characters at their most colourful, and with its famous opening line, the plot is the most iconic. The novel teaches us of the danger of First Impressions – such was its original title – as told by the blossoming love story between the stubborn Elizabeth Bennett and the seemingly arrogant Mr. Darcy. The fiery relationship between the two main characters is captivating to watch unfold, and they feel easier to relate to than some of Austen’s stuffier protagonists.
Emma is even more of a triumph, and it’s no coincidence that this is the only novel named after its heroine. Described in the first chapter as ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition’, Emma Woodhouse is full of youthful verve, matchmaking the characters around her. More importantly, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse is employed to full effect here, drawing us intimately towards Emma’s viewpoint: her eventual surprise over Knightley’s true romantic affections becomes our own, as we realise we’ve been misled by her well-meaning misjudgements. As she realises her own fallibility, she embraces the usual process of self-realisation – a gruelling trial faced by all Austen heroines – with admirable readiness.
But with little deliberation, the greatest of Austen’s novels must be Persuasion. It was also her last novel, published posthumously, and this is reflected in a more melancholy tale about a love nearly lost. The story focuses on Anne Elliot, the heroine who has ‘lost her bloom’ and still longs for the man she was once persuaded to turn down, when his prospects were deemed too unreliable. The novel exposes a dark reality on the futures facing young unmarried women: to desperately find a husband, or become a spinster. But Anne’s integrity and honesty win out in the most heart-warming of the novels’ climaxes, as she is harmoniously unified with her beloved Captain Wentworth. Written at the height of Austen’s powers, it is a profoundly moving and at times comic tale.
Her talents may have been cut short, but their potential for appreciation is long: as William F. Buckley, Jr said, ‘One doesn’t read Jane Austen; one re-reads Jane Austen.’ I had better get going again…