Favorite Jane Austen Novels

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.

#2 Persuasion

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.

#4 Emma

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.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 4:33 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Bonus reading: Mr. Darcy’s Diary. It is fairly new pub. from the UK, yet I found it to be quite an interesting exploration of his side of the story. It would be interesting to study each of the books through the eyes of the hero instead of the girl.

    I’ve also wished someone would write the “Beast” side of the classic “The Beauty and the Beast”.

    AL: I’ve wanted to read that, and I even checked it out but never got to it. A crime, I know. I’ll put it back on my hold list at my library. Would be fun to read right after I finish P&P. My husband was teasing me last night that he didn’t know why I bothered reading it because I had it memorized anyway. Hmph. Obviously, he doesn’t understand!

  2. I agree with your #1. Pride and Predjudice is Jane Austen in a nut shell.

    However, Emma might actually be my favorite.
    So, it gets the #2 slot for me.
    I guess because in my mind, I might relate to Emma the best. Of course I’m not rich and beautiful and I don’t have horrible parents, but I relate to her mismanaged desire to see everyone happy. She messes things up, but her heart is in the right place (mostly).

    Sense and Sensibility would come in at #3.
    Oh Marianne.

    Persuasian is #4.

    It has been forever since I’ve read Mansfield Park, and I’m not 100% certain I’ve read Northanger Abbey.

    Just in case you wanted my opinion, haha.

    AL: I appreciate hearing your order! I know that mine won’t be everyone’s favorite order, but I thought I’d give my reasons, for those new to the Jane world. The new Northanger Abbey film that was on PBS last year was a lot of fun because they set it in a cool old castle and really worked the mood well. Still a bit of a corny book, but worth reading to round out the Austen experience.

  3. Amy: I’m glad your group gave in to your ‘subtle’ suggestion. They won’t regret it. P & P is my all time favorites and IMHO, it’s the epitome of Austen ingenuity. I’ve written some articles on it that might be springboard to group discussion. You’re welcome to browse through.

    AL: Thanks for the offer Arti! I’ll have to check those out. It would be nice to have some fresh new discussion points. Nice to know another Austen fan!

  4. I absolutely must read Pride & Prejudice. I’ve put it off for much too long.

    AL: Thanks for stopping by the site. Nice to have another avid reader to compare notes with. Will check out your reviews. I see we share some similar taste in literature.

  5. Already read P & P for the summer. Working my way through Sense and Sensibility now. Going to read them in published order this time for something differnt. :o)

    AL: That’s a good idea! I’ve read them in the order Austen wrote them in, but not in the publication order, which would be a new slant on things. Interesting to note that Austen only published 4 of the books during her lifetime.

    Might also be fun to throw in her juvenilia, which was the stuff she wrote when she was younger (don’t think it was published until long after her death, into the 20th century). There’s some epistolary story forms (letter writing) and even some poems. Also, there’s the unfinished novel Sanditon that most people never read, but it’s fun to read because there’s a sizable chunk of a novel there. Some people have even attempted to complete the unfinished novel, but I haven’t read the attempts. So, I can’t speak to those.

  6. Well, I’m going to join you in reading P&P….I’ll pull that volume of Jane’s works down off the shelf. I have to confess, while I’ve SEEN all of these in various screen productions, I’ve never actually read them. And the characters are a bit mixed up in my mind at the moment, except for Mr. Darcy of course! I know who HE is!

    Someone gave me this nice fat volume of Jane Austen a few Christmases ago, but so far all I’ve read is a sort story, Lady Susan. Talk about irony…it was both humorous and scathing, practically scorching the pages as I read.

    AL: I haven’t read Lady Susan in forever. I think it’s one of the juvenilia, so you’ve just started at the beginning of Austen’s work! I think her irony is always with her, even from the start, but she becomes more subtle and deft with it as she matures. As a younger writer, she applies it with heavy brushstrokes.

    I’m so excited for you to read the book! Can’t wait to hear what you think.

  7. Great list!

    I think I would recommend

    1. Sense and Sensibility because the contrast between Elinor and Dashwood gets at heart of Jane Austen. As you say, Willoughby is the worst!

    2. Persuasion because Anne Eliot is a wonderful character, as you say.

    3. Emma because the expert characterization of the heroine is one of the best examples in all English literature. The irony is so splendid.

    4. Northanger Abbey because the Morlands are just so good.

    5. Pride and Prejudice because it is the most complex in terms of plot, but it lacks sufficient direct dialoge to be higher in the list. The Bennett sisters offer a wider range of types, but the book drags a bit compared to the others.

    6. Mansfield Park because it is a bit weird and depressing.

    AL: Thanks for chiming in here with your votes! It’s always great to see how people rank the different books, a testament to Austen’s talent and timelessness. I also think it’s incredible how she can appeal across genders and generations too!

    I’m going to disagree about the “direct dialogue” element. While the book may lack more direct quotes, it has something far better. One of Austen’s most powerful contributions to the canon of English literature is her “free indirect discourse,” a form of narration that gets inside a characters head while adapting some of their dialogue. It avoids direct quotes, yet it still preserve the character’s perspective. It’s an ingenious method of portraying character and moving along the story. And, not surprisingly, I think she does it best in Pride and Prejudice. I do believe that Austen is the originator of this form of writing, this free indirect discourse, so I think it’s a strength of the book.

  8. Hello, out of the blue I found this website: so here I am, someone who hated Jane Austen when she had to read P & P at school (more than 35 years ago) but whose intellectual interest was sparked recently by the discovery of so many contemporary fans. If so many thought Jane Austen was a consummate social commentator, the epitome of elegant wit, the supreme describer of the manners of her age etc. etc., who was I to judge from a poorly read example and only one book at that? So I found a cheap package deal for all the novels and have worked my way through them. Sadly – do I hear you all drawing horrified breaths – Austen’s supposed, major literary charms still escape me and perhaps it is telling that I enjoyed Northanger Abbey and believe myself to admire Mansfield Park as the “best” novel. This latter opinion is precisely because the novel hints more broadly at the wider society of the time and I see parallels with our modern period where there is a great deal of “spin” which makes certain behaviours acceptable because we choose not to consider their ramifications. I must be quiet now for fear of expanding into a badly thought out thesis off the top of my head!

    AL: So glad you found my site and took the time to share your thoughts. Don’t be ashamed one bit for choosing your favorites among Austen’s works and finding them different than the norm. I know several people who are rebels and choose those two as favorites, so you’re certainly not alone. I also would love to hear more about your thesis reasons because they sound fascinating! I’m afraid many people just choose favorite’s based on first blush reactions without putting much thought to why, so I admire that you’ve taken it a step further. You might consider watching the BBC version of the books, which always brings to light new aspects (especially the classic collin firth Pride and prejudice one).

  9. Nice site – glad I found it!

    I am starting with Pride and prejudice. I have heard people say to start with Northanger Abbey (not sure why). I’ve also heard to end with Emma – it seems many people do not like Emma, or like it least of all her works.

    Since I do not have Northanger Abbey at home I’ll read Pride and Prejudice first. I’ll have to check out Ann Radcliffe’s the Mysteries of Udolpho and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto – it’s always good to know what the author was thinking about when he/she wrote a novel; that way you may be able to “get it” more so than not.

    AL: Thanks for stopping by! People probably say to start with Northanger Abbey because it was the first one she actually wrote, even though it was one of the last ones published. You can also read them in the order she published them, starting with Sense and Sensibility, for another order. Or just start with P&P, which is her most well known and most people’s favorites. Be prepared for a high degree of corniness with the Castle of Otranto and the Mysteries of Udolpho, which is partly why Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in mockery of them in the first place.

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