I could talk all day (as could many others) about what makes Jane Austen such a great writer. She was a satirical realist who made impeccable observations about the way people behave in public. For those of her characters who make the mistake of thinking that the way they behave is fully consistent with the way they feel and think, Austen gives us free indirect discourse, a window into the inner rooms of her characters’ minds. The contrasts Austen observes between thought and action are embarrassingly familiar and bitchy-funny.
The Jane Austen books pretty much all count as favorites with me, though I definitely have a ranking. Northanger Abby, while a more than enjoyable read, comes in last. Intelligent and comedic as it is, it doesn’t have the complexity or scope of her later novels, though it does feature Austen’s very famous paragraph in defense of the novel, a literary form which was, at her time, still pretty novel!
Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Stern, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda, or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
If you were paying attention, you’ll see I took the title of this blog from Northanger Abby. After that, the ranking goes upward:
5.) Mansfield Park
3.) Sense and Sensibility
1.) Pride and Prejudice
I suppose ranking Pride and Prejudice#1 is the epitome of obvious, but it is doubtless the most delightful of her works. When I first read it, as a high-school student of 16, I figured it would be a dull read about some lame rich people and their problems. Some of the characters are both lame and rich, but the plot is primarily about anyone who has ever been young and thought she knew it all. Anyone who thinks she knows it all is eventually proved wrong, and usually in an embarrassing moment of realization. Everyone has these moments. Not everyone rises humbly and gracefully to a new understanding of themselves the way Elizabeth and Darcy do. In a time and place where women were supposedly purely ornamental, men supposedly always knew best, being a “gentleman” didn’t mean you had manners, and love in marriage was optional, Austen created two people who transcend their classes and sexes and meet, finally, as two equal minds who have something to learn from one another.