Why I Read Jane Austen

February 26, 2011
More by this author
I remember when I could not say that I had a favorite author. In elementary school, I read books of a wide range of genres – from Laura Ingalls Wilder to C.S. Lewis to Robert Louis Stevenson – but while I enjoyed many of them, I found none that I absolutely adored. That is, until sixth grade. When I first opened Pride and Prejudice at eleven, I absolutely hated it. Yet at the time, I could never have guessed that Jane Austen would not only become my most beloved author in years to come but also grow into an indelible part of who I am.
In early experimentations with books, I had gradually navigated toward realistic and historical fiction, drawn to the real emotions in these novels. One day in my sixth grade English class, my teacher off-handedly remarked that in a few years, we should challenge ourselves to read Jane Austen. At eleven, I always felt the need to rise up to Mr. Weedmark’s every suggestion – somewhat more a fault in pride rather than brilliant virtue. But I did it. I decided to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, what were described as her best works, and started down a new literary undertaking.
The venture was exciting, as was the first page of Pride and Prejudice. But soon the tedious style grew boring. The Bennet sisters’ stay at Netherfield Park dragged on interminably; I snored through droll conversations between Mr. Darcy and Mr. This-and-That. But as I pushed onward (still, my stubbornness in tackling this challenge was an Excalibur in stone), I met Mr. Collins – completely insufferable, as a certain clever lady would say. If I did not abhor Jane Austen at that point, then I most certainly disliked her. I found her details lengthy and unnecessary. I found her characters pointless and bland. Coincidentally, at this very time when I loathed the book, I came across a trailer for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice blockbuster film. I ranted at the television, turning to my father and dismissing this preposterous idea of a movie about that atrocious novel. I was a sixth-grader who loved long vocabulary words, especially to complain about Jane Austen.
Yet something happened in the last few chapters of Emma. Somehow, the plot that I had carried like Hercules shouldering the world suddenly transformed into a flurry of movement. I whipped through the pages in suspense, waiting for Emma and Mr. Knightley’s story to unfold, unable to guess whether the best or worst scenario would occur.
Somehow, Austen’s book was all that occupied my mind.
Her novels burst into my small, eleven-year-old world and stole my heart. I did not know at first that Jane Austen wrote only happy endings. But this knowledge would later propel me to love her works even more. There were already enough broken hearts and sadness in life; it took so much more to create a meaningful novel that did not end in pitiful tragedy. I started reading Jane Austen in sixth grade, but it was not until the beginning of eighth grade that I truly realized her importance. I could read certain lines and chapters again and again, drinking in the beauty of her words that captured, so fully, the female spirit and heart.
These thoughts of a young middle school girl, however, have evolved into a true love for Jane Austen’s six novels. So many millions of readers across the world treasure her writing; Austen has been renowned for over two centuries and continues to be a truly timeless author. Four items, in particular, define the qualities of a Jane Austen story:
Meaningful romance. The desire for a happy-ending romance without superficially spun storylines. In modern literature, romantic light reads shine tantalizingly from gleaming bookshelves, but are filled with predictable, shallow plots. Jane Austen, however, from her first book published at the turn of the 19th century, has captured the essence of real, and often flawed, romance. Compared to hollow romantic stories that are whipped up again and again in current young adult novels, Austen’s stories fulfill a reader’s love for romance while also going beyond just the romance. She writes of good friends and good intentions, harmful matchmaking and harmful silliness. Austen’s novels transcend the love story, for the character development seen through the stories is exceptional.
Beloved characters. Characters who are well-rounded and good in nature, but still flawed, changing, and always growing. Austen’s heroines and heroes are so memorable because they face problems, make mistakes, and learn to grow just like the readers. Two centuries have not changed the fundamental feelings and behavior of people – which is precisely what makes Austen’s writing literally timeless. Readers do not easily forget the quintessential Miss Bates, who rambles for more than a page at a time, nor the dashing bad-boy with a soulful name, Willoughby of Allenham. Of course, characters Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy have become immortalized as one of the most famous literary couples in English literature. This fame comes from Austen’s craft in shaping such relatable, understandable, and intimate characters.
Poignant style. A style of writing that conveys so much with simple, often humorous, language. Much of Austen’s style is satirical on a deeper level, which contributes to her relatable voice. During the most moving, emotional parts of the plot, the writing flows so beautifully and quickly that it is as though words are not there at all, but merely images. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot sighs that she and her one-time fiancée from seven years ago “were now as strangers; nay, worse than strangers because they could never become acquainted.” Such a modest, simple expression conveys profound insight into the difficulties of human connection. Austen’s style appears very proper when compared modern times, but the formal feeling only gives a more poignant atmosphere.
Old-fashioned manners. Gentlemanly chivalry, proper manners, curtsies and bows, and a time when dancing with someone was the closest intimacy. Not every reader may enjoy this distinction of the mannerisms in Regency England to the same degree, but it is without a doubt an essential part of the definition of a Jane Austen story. Love at that time must be courted and shown in gentle ways, through just a look or an opportune meeting in the garden. Especially in contrast to the modern unabashed dating etiquette, the propriety of Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines adds a beautiful depth to their love stories.

These four characteristics of Jane Austen’s novels may be enjoyed to different degrees in each person. The most adoring aficionados name themselves Janeites or Austenites; I, too, proudly claim to be an obsessed Janeite. My love for the memorable characters may be the strongest influencing factor, especially when I inevitably compare friends with similar characters from Austen’s six novels. I have begun truly connecting with Austen’s work as I become a teenager. Amidst high school drama and frivolous, frustrating feelings, I find a surprising companion. Jane Austen’s women deal with the same irritating people and trying times, unsuspectingly similar to a modern teenager’s troubles.
My early development in reading Jane Austen had sparked the growth of Austen’s importance in my life; I have realized that the pursuit itself is part of the significance. Reading Jane Austen did not even seem daunting when I boldly proclaimed this challenge as a little sixth grader. Later, when I became (perhaps a little distressingly) addicted to her books at a young age, I found that the themes, feelings, and characters of her stories had always been a part of me. Now, my entire persona has become more romantic; inevitably, the windows of my world turn a light rosy pink. Yet it is not caustic or harmful. Rather, a Jane-Austen type of romanticism is uplifting, warm, and enlivening.
But loving Jane Austen is not easy. Most high school students brand her as “boring” and “stuffy.” Sometimes people will laugh, point, and roll their eyes at me. Last year, I gathered together a group of friends who enjoyed classics and started a Jane Austen Book Club, imitating Karen Joy Fowler’s book of the same name. Yet, it fell a little short of accomplishing what I had envisioned – chats on the porch, altering of our lives, and bonding over the stories. I realized that I could arduously try to get others excited, but being a teenager sometimes means that reading Jane Austen must be just a personal enjoyment.
However, I know that I have stumbled upon an eternally favorite author. Indeed, “eternal” because I cannot think of another writer who could possibly fill my life as wondrously as Jane Austen has. This woman of the late 18th century English country could not have guessed at her timeless influence all across the literary world, or her tremendous impact in transforming the life of one young girl. Everybody needs a little Jane Austen romance once in a while. I look forward to discovering others who feel the same about her writing and also finding similar authors to enjoy. As the witty novelist once wrote, “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” In embracing her writing, I have embraced Jane Austen’s challenge to find more of the world to love.

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

Site Feedback