In addition to teaching the various classes I teach, I have also taken on an independent study with one student. We decided to do Jane Austen’s novels. I had only read two: Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. I had tried to read both Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, but hadn’t been able to motivate myself to finish them. I’ve seen at least a movie version of each, but I’ll be the first to admit that the movies don’t always get it right.
I came to Austen in college. Any British period movies looked pretty boring to me back in high school. I have this vague recollection of my mother making me watch Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson version) with her and I didn’t much get it, especially why Marianne would go for such an old man (Sorry, Alan Rickman). Yes, I was not so mature. When I got to college I had friends who developed the habit of watching the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice (BBC) while they packed up to leave the dorms. So I watched because they told me I’d love it.
Well, they were right. I did. I loved the romance of it. When I read Persuasion later on, I loved the romance in that although I didn’t quite relate to Anne. Since then, I’ve watched various movie versions, but have never gotten around to reading the books. I took the Jane Austen heroine quiz and found I was Catherine Morland (according to all the scientific research that made such a quiz), but I never could finish any of the books. And really, there’s no kissing in the books so how enjoyable can it be?
I’m not sure what changed since I was in my early twenties to now, but I think I’m reading Austen at the exact right time. Because all of a sudden, her books aren’t about the romance at all. Northanger Abbey was about a girl growing up and overcoming her naivete. She learned that being innocent isn’t very safe, and sometimes people are far less than you wish them to be. Sense and Sensibility is about sisters, maddening as they both can be. The financial situations of Austen’s novels are so incredibly real and disheartening. I ‘get’ that often the heroines are looking to marry well, which doesn’t always have to do with love. There’s an argument that Elizabeth doesn’t ‘fall’ for Darcy until she sees Pemberley. I don’t blame her. Security for a woman was desirable because a woman couldn’t easily find it on her own. She had to marry well. Austen’s understanding of the foibles and quirks of human nature are brilliant. As a writer, I am jealous of her ability to create these real, yet absurd characters.
The romance part is nice, sure, but it no longer pulls me like it did when I was a decade younger. I’m a hopeless romantic, but I think Miss Austen had more to say. Each story is full of satire, grief, humor, love (all types), and the conflict of just something as simple as a social slight. Because for most of us, we won’t be at the mercy of a hungry vampire in our lives. But we might just do something really embarrassing and have to get through it, all on our own mettle.
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