I’m thrilled to pieces that one of my book groups finally gave into my nagging subtle hinting and decided to read a Jane Austen novel. When introducing people to her work, there’s only one book to start with, in my mind: Pride and Prejudice. So, this month, I’ll be reading it, for the zillionth time (it’s a yearly thing).
My friend Melanie mentioned that she’d love to see me put more book lists on my blog, so I thought I’d do a Jane list. These are my suggested reading order for Austen’s novels, but it’s also my order of favorites. Renaissance Guy did a great Jane Austen themed post awhile ago about his favorite characters, and yours truly chimed in with a comment (how could I not?). Check that out if you have the time.
#1 Pride and Prejudice
Read this first for the most memorable, estimable, and modern heroine, Elizabeth Bennett. Also, a woman needs to know Mr. Darcy to appreciate the roots of the chic lit. genre of today. He’s fabulous, and the most heroic and distinguished man in Austen’s books.
This choice will surprise Jane fans, I assume. I choose it second because it represents Austen’s most mature writing. It’s her final completed novel, and the heroine is also the oldest one, most wizened and perhaps the most autobiographical of Austen herself. Anne Elliot is heartbreakingly loyal and real. She’s a heroine for women who find love late in life, or for anyone who has loved and lost.
#3 Sense and Sensibility
This is a story for women who call themselves “true romantics” (and need to be broken of that illusion). Marianne Dashwood is nauseating at times, and Austen is at her best ironic form when poking fun at the younger Dashwood sister’s sentimentality. The classic “rake” male is the worst in all of Austen’s tales, so if you want a guy to hate, this is him. I won’t name names and spoil the fun.
Emma gets a bad rap for being a spoiled brat, but Austen doesn’t always let her have her way. As always, there’s an ironic touch to everything Emma does. Austen once said that Emma was the heroine that only she could like. I disagree because I sympathize with Emma’s busybody nature. And she gets what’s coming to her. Emma’s father is the worst example of parenting in all the books, but if you recognize that Austen is poking fun at people who are professional invalids (in her day, they were called valetudinarians), it can be quite amusing. Expect irony at every turn with Emma, and you won’t be disappointed.
#5 Mansfield Park
This is a dark novel, and I have a hard time sympathizing with the overly moralistic heroine, Fanny Price. But there’s a great host of other characters, including a brother and sister team who are up to no good. Here’s a dysfunctional family if I’ve ever seen one.
#6 Northanger Abbey
Austen wrote this novel as a parody of the popular gothic novels of her time. To truly understand it, you’ve got to read the books she’s parodying, primarily Ann Radcliffe’s the Mysteries of Udolpho and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This isn’t a romance, just a romp in an old castle, more of a murder mystery. If you like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Mr. Darcy sends you into convulsions (the not good kind), maybe you’d like this novel best. But for me, I don’t think this is where Austen’s strength lies. It’s amusing, and she’s showing a different side of her writing, but I’d choose the other books first.