Reading group: which Jane Austen book should we read to mark her bicentenary?
On the 18 July 1817, Jane Austen died in Winchester, after a long, painful illness. Her brother James arranged for her to be buried in the cathedral. The inscription on her tomb reads:
In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.
Touching words – and perhaps it is unusual for a woman of Austen’s time to be complimented for the “endowments of her mind”. But viewed from the 21st century, there is a glaring omission. Why did James fail to mention that his sister was one of the greatest damn writers who has ever lived?
Yes, he had no way of knowing that she would be remembered hundreds of years later for helping invent the English novel and as one of the finest observers of the human heart and social customs. But why did he not think it was worth mentioning that Austen was an exquisite prose stylist? Surely he could have mentioned her way with zingers? Just look at them: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?” Or this: “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Or: “It was a delightful visit;– perfect, in being much too short.”
I could happily spend this whole article rooting out Jane Austen quotes, but the chances are you’ve read them all. She is central to our culture – so much so, you might think it will be a challenge to find something new to discuss this month on the Reading group. What hasn’t already been said about Austen?
But I’m not worried. Like all great authors, Austen holds a mirror up to our times as much as to her own. She’s always relevant, but also very much of her time. Reading the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, who today would still believe “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”? Austen shows that, even in 1813, things were a little more complicated than that exquisite phrasing suggests, but it is fascinating to read of such a society from a completely different vantage point.
Speaking of the passing of time, I’m also curious to see how it feels to read Austen again. It’s more than 20 years since I read anything she wrote. Some time in the mid-90s I ground out my last A-level paragraph about dramatic irony in Emma, put away my pen with relief, started reading On the Road – and didn’t look back. I suspect there are plenty of other people in a similar situation, so it will be fascinating to engage with her again (especially free from the shadow of exams). I’m hoping to discover all sorts of new things in her books, and I might even catch a few jokes that were too subtle for me when I was 18.
In short, I’m looking forward to it. The only question is which book to read. I think the simplest and best way to decide will be to put all of her novels to a vote. They are (in order of publication):
Lady Susan was a short epistolary novel written while Austen was a teenager, but published in 1871. If it rouses your curiosity, I don’t see why we can’t count it in. Otherwise, there are six classics to choose from. Nominate your favourite in the comments below and I’ll return here in a few days time to tot up the results.
Until then, one more classic quote from Austen, which I include without comment: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.”