Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reading Jane Austen

For the last few years I've been choosing an author to focus on. For that year I'll read books both by and about the author - often expanding my selection to the author's contemporaries, friends, etc.

Last year I focused on Margaret Laurence, an author I have long been a fan of. I read her 5 novels and memoir, as well as a biography, letters between her and her life-long friend Adele Wiseman, and Wiseman's novel Crackpot.

This year, after receiving two Jane Austen novels for Christmas, I'm turning to her gentle satire of English gentry in the 1800s.

I started off the year with Sense and Sensibility (1811), which is fitting since it was her first novel published. She published it under the pseudonym 'A Lady' and had to pay the publisher to print it.

The novel is about two sisters. Elinor, the elder, is  full of common sense and is highly conscious of what is respectable and appropriate. Her younger sister Marianne represents romantic sensibilities of impulsiveness and free expression of emotion. Both women are seeking love, but their differences in temperament affect how they go about this - and how well they succeed.

The second novel I read was Persuasion (1818), Austen's last complete novel, published after her death in 1817. Though similar to Sense and Sensibility in its focus on refined society and the pressures on young women to make suitable marriages, this novel is more satirical in tone. Austen is critical of the judgmental and selfish aspects of high society and shows how few options and opportunities women were afforded.

Both novels were very quick and engaging reads. There are few surprises, but the character descriptions and conversations are deftly drawn. The critical observations of society and gender roles are made more effective for being subtly woven into the text.

As a woman novelist, Austen was well ahead of her time. She was likely very aware that her narrative voice was new, and perhaps unwelcome at the time. Near the end of Persuasion, the novel's main character, Anne Elliot, is discussing women's constancy with a male acquaintance.

"I do no think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy" [he says]...
"If you please, no reference to examples in books," [Anne replies]. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing."

Thankfully we have the books of Jane Austen to prove that even in a time when women were restricted by strict social mores, limited in educational and professional opportunities, they were no less witty, intelligent nor capable of greatness.

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