Reading Jane

During each of the past few years, I’ve undertaken a year-long reading project. In 2021 I read War and Peace at the rate of one chapter per day for 361 days. In 2022 I read all the works of Shakespeare at a pace of three pages per day in my anthology. In 2023 my goal was to read all the works of Jane Austen.

I calculated that this would mean reading 10 pages per day, as the 7-book Jane Austen collection I bought on Amazon had approximately 3000 pages (per the marketing material) and then I needed to read a few other pieces that weren’t included (mostly the unfinished stuff like Sanditon and The Watsons). A little ways in, however, I learned that this page count included a lot of opening material and notes for each book, which did not all need to be part of the project.

Net result: I finished reading everything Jane Austen wrote about a week ago, with about a quarter of the year left to go. Oh well!

I’m glad I did it. I like being familiar with this well-known cast of characters and stories. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility felt the most compelling to me, and I imagine to lots of folks, which explains why they are her most widely read books (though I know Emma and Persuasion have their fans!). Especially in reading unfinished works like Sanditon and The Watsons, I could see Austen’s careful scene setting and character development. Parts of her early writings (bound together in the 7-book set in a collection called “Love and Friendship,” after one novella) were hilariously satirical. I enjoyed when some of that humor came back out in parts of Pride and Prejudice.

On the other hand…I didn’t really fall in love with Jane Austen’s books. I started this project truly hoping I would. I appreciate them, for sure, and how they show the limited (if changing) world her female main characters inhabited. I can understand, on an intellectual level, that the passive, quiet Fanny Price shows the challenge of trying to maintain your dignity and integrity in a world that gives you little control of your life. I can be grateful my world is different! But it was hard to stick with that passiveness for 450 pages. Elizabeth Bennet, of course, and Elinor Dashwood, to a degree, feel like more modern heroines. Still, the pace for the first 100-plus pages in many of the Austen books was challenging. That’s why I needed a project like this, where I read a little bit each day, so I didn’t give up. That way I could appreciate some dialogue, or a description, for the craft and for what they were, rather than wondering where this was going.

Anyway, I’m going to re-read a few Shakespeare plays over the next few months, before I start 2024’s project, which I think will be a little different — listening to all of Bach’s music. (I might re-read P&P too.)

In the meantime, if you have a favorite Jane Austen book, let me know which one and why! (Maybe someone’s is Lady Susan, who knows…) And if you have read all of them (or all but one or two) I’d love to hear about that as well.

In other news: This week’s Before Breakfast podcast will be sharing a few of my favorite non-fiction writing tips. Today’s is to ask “Do you come out for it or against it?” Please give it a listen, and then look for the next four tips over the next four days.

In other other news: Last week I went to Portland, Maine for business and then to Boston to meet up with SHU. I did decide to drive, as I’d mentioned a few months ago. The drive to Portland on Tuesday was…long. I mean, it’s long anyway, though theoretically with no traffic it can be 6.5-7 hours. But I got stuck behind a bad crash on the Tappan Zee/Cuomo bridge (which I’d taken, ironically enough, to avoid some jam-ups around the George Washington bridge…). There was nothing to do about it, as by the time it happened I was in the approach to the bridge and so I was there for an hour or so. I had some lovely runs along the water in Portland in the mornings, and then it was fun to be in Boston for a bit too. Sarah and I ran along the Charles and enjoyed a beer at a chilly outdoor beer garden. Fall is definitely here in New England! The drive home Saturday was relatively swift except for the torrential rain. But there’s a reasonable chance that would have delayed a flight too, so hard to know.

Last night we hosted a small crowd of 8th graders for my second child’s 14th birthday. These young men were all nice enough — the most challenging part was keeping the 3-year-old (and to some degree the 8-year-old) out of their hair. The little guy kept trying to go play with them!

23 thoughts on “Reading Jane

  1. I love Jane Austen’s work. Revisiting it always feels cheery. I last reread all her works during the spring and summer of 2020 and it was definitely the escape I needed at that time. Pride and Prejudice is definitely the best. Who wouldn’t want to be as witty and sparkly as Lizzy. But I agree the pace is slow to modern readers and the books are more character driven than plot driven. Recently I have been reading them aloud with my 13 yo daughter. We read P&P and then watched the BBC movie. Now we are reading Emma. It is a fun way to revisit them.

    1. Unfortunately I don’t remember who first said that “Plot IS character,” but I find it to be true that the plots of the best novels are character-driven.

    2. @Gillian – are you guys going to read Mansfield Park aloud? That would require some serious stamina! But I can see how pairing each book with a movie could make for a fun reading experience.

  2. I wonder if the “read a little a day” approach made the pacing feel worse? Honestly, I’ve never been able to get through Mansfield Park so I’m with you there, but one of my favorite memories is reading Emma in one sitting. In my undergrad after a particularly brutal calculus final I swung by the bookstore, bought a paperback copy of Emma and sat down on a bench in a secluded part of campus and read the whole thing. It was the perfect way to decompress after all that calculus!

    1. @Lizzy – I did read the ends of the books in one fell swoop in most cases – when I was finally into the plot. So like the last 50 pages of Emma during a beach trip. But I have to say that I was generally not thinking “I’d like to read more than 10 pages” during the first halves of any of the books!

  3. How about finishing out the Year of Jane with a biography? I found the classic _A Portrait of Jane Austen_ by David Cecil most illuminating, and I plan to read _Jane Austen at Home_ by Lucy Worsley for a more modern, feminist take on her life in comparison, as I think the more distant in time an author is, the more crucial historical context is to understanding their work. It’s easy to be seduced by rose-colored film versions of two-hundred-year-old comic novels into assuming all costume dramas are analogous to modern romance novels; whereas Austen herself believed she was incapable of keeping a straight face long enough to write romances and considered her novels to be comedic social satire. Speaking of which, the Austen novel I learned the most from as a writer is _Northanger Abbey_, which also brilliantly satirizes the Gothic novels so popular as light reading in Austen’s day. I put off reading _Mansfield Park_ for many years, expecting to dislike it, having heard so many bad things about it, but I ended up being deeply moved by it, with this to say to those who can’t relate to it enough to get through it: count your blessings that the pernicious emotional abuse Fanny suffers at the hands of her family is so far removed from your own experience that you’re unable to comprehend how debilitating that can be. I had the opposite experience with _Persuasion_, thinking I was saving the best for last on the advice of many friends who share my taste in literature, only to be deeply disappointed to the point of wondering how many of them had actually read it (as opposed to watching some film version), as it was so different stylistically and structurally from Austen’s other novels, predominantly internal reminiscence about the past with very little dialogue or present action. Another fun sidebar to the Year of Jane could be to read the novel _Jane Fayrfax_, a skillful re-telling of _Emma_ from Jane Fayrfax’s point of view that was published anonymously, but I think was written by the brilliant children’s book author Joan Aiken.

    1. There is a podcast that just took a year to walk through P&P chapter by chapter. I think some of their interpretations were a bit too modern (I am not convinced Jane was trying to take down the patriarchy–maybe make fun of it though), but one helpful thing they did was provide a little historical context on some aspect of the chapter they were discussing. That was really interesting to me.

      1. @Gillian – yeah, I don’t think she was trying to revolutionize everything – and she seems to be very respectful to the concept of marriage even as it is often not done as it should be.

  4. I’m not sure I could get through Shakespeare in a year. I would be constantly diverted to looking up histories and biographies and etymologies and English language history and listening to the History of English podcast and…well, going down rabbit holes. I had the same problem with Jane Austen, looking up entailment and classes and distances between towns. (and to be honest, I just didn’t care enough about the stories.)

    1. @Barb – I didn’t go down rabbit holes but I did make sure to read the Wikipedia article on each play before starting. Otherwise it would have been challenging to figure out what was going on with some of the plays I wasn’t as familiar with. Just knowing the character list and general plot was massively helpful.

  5. I adore P&P – so much of it is genuinely funny. I listened to it at the start of this year. I have a soft spot for “sensible older sister” Elinor in S&S. I loved Persuasion when I first read it as a 22yo but 13 years later I was underwhelmed. I cannot stand Emma or NA… and Mansfield Park is in my queue. But to me, P&P is in a class of its own. Lizzie and Jane are much less one dimensional than the heroines of her other characters (and more relatable for their more modern sensibilities). I must look up some of Gwyneth’s recommendations above!

    1. @Yvann – yes, I thought Elinor was a nice example of keeping yourself together when others are being ridiculous. But Lizzie is in a class by herself.

  6. Intriguingly, one of Jane Austen’s biggest fans was Rudyard Kipling, who wrote this beatific poem in tribute to her:

    Jane’s Marriage

    Jane went to Paradise:
    That was only fair.
    Good Sir Walter followed her,
    And armed her up the stair.
    Henry and Tobias,
    And Miguel of Spain,
    Stood with Shakespeare at the top
    To welcome Jane—

    Then the Three Archangels
    Offered out of hand
    Anything in Heaven’s gift
    That she might command.
    Azrael’s eyes upon her,
    Raphael’s wings above,
    Michael’s sword against her heart,
    Jane said: “Love.”

    Instantly the under-
    Standing Seraphim
    Laid their fingers on their lips
    And went to look for him.
    Stole across the Zodiac,
    Harnessed Charles’s Wain,
    And whispered round the Nebulae
    “Who loved Jane?”

    In a private limbo
    Where none had thought to look,
    Sat a Hampshire gentleman
    Reading of a book.
    It was called Persuasion
    And it told the plain
    Story of the love between
    Him and Jane.

    He heard the question,
    Circle Heaven through—
    Closed the book and answered:
    “I did—and do!”
    Quietly but speedily
    (As Captain Wentworth moved)
    Entered into Paradise
    The man Jane loved!

    Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
    Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
    And while the stones of Winchester—or Milsom Street—remain,
    Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

    1. Very interesting! Though I am now thinking of the contrast between this earnest poem and Austen’s histories of England from her juvenalia…

    2. Write something about JA and marriage… Like I would be curious how and why you find her pro take on it interesting … Is she wrong, how so? Is she right, how so? Or something like what would Jane Austen think of My Marriage or of these Five Modern Marriages… Like sometimes to connect to it it is fun to think where one and it might intersect even though we are in two different historical moments.. Like why do we care? Why is she cannon or is she cannon to women today and why? I would be kind of interested not to read all of her stuff but to read more for sure something of hers that I might connect w .. maybe this is a good idea for a book … or article… like let’s look at this again..

  7. I’ve always loved Austen’s novels, although my favorite has evolved over the years – as a teenager I loved Emma, as a young adult Pride and Prejudice was my favorite (it is certainly the most widely adapted into modern romance tropes), and lately Persuasion has been growing on me.

    I’m always amazed at how similar Austen’s books feel, at least on a surface level, to modern stories. Austen’s heroines have an economic and social imperative to marry that is orders of magnitude stronger than anything modern Western women experience. But the interaction between romantic partners, and between sisters and friends, still rings true, and reading Austen doesn’t feel appreciably different from reading a contemporary rom com set in Regency England (not to say that the quality of these books is always comparable!). By contrast, when I read many books written more recently – basically anything by the “important” (typically male) writers of the early twentieth century – I am constantly reminded, or reminding myself, that the sensibility that created this story isn’t a contemporary one.

    1. Is is stronger though really than what most women still experience @ men as a necessity for economic empowerment in patriarchy .. single women are poorer sort of right still than married women in our society no? this imperative… might be fun to say see how her dialogue is just like women talk today? maybe give some examples for those of us who are not as good at time management to read all this but would like to live vicariously through those of you who do..

  8. It’s fun to read, after reading the proper novels, one of the monster mash up versions. Pride and Prejudice and Vampires. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

  9. Jane Austen herself never married but was pro marriage?
    There is probably something else here in this in her popularity now etc.

    Maybe someone should write a novel like imaging her marriage or what she would write or be like as her own character… or married today or something like this…
    and some of the themes all of this brings up..

    Or like a podcast of a book group of married women say reading Jane on their 25th wedding anniversaries or on their 5th, 10th and 15th and 25th and 40th wedding anniversaries?

  10. I looked some of this up bc I was curious… She wrote every day and she wasn’t what we would call pro marriage… for women… per say
    Jane Austen Was The Master of the Marriage Plot But She Remained Single
    by Jamie Stiehm
    The great English novelist Jane Austen never met her Mr. Darcy in real life. In fact, Reader, Austen was a master of the marriage plot but never married. Her beloved life partner was her sister Cassandra, also a spinster. The sisters shared a bedroom in a country cottage during the last eight years of Jane’s life.
    As Jane’s birthday draws near on Dec. 16, let’s raise a glass to the lady born in 1775. Austen died 200 years ago, in July of 1817. She left this world early, at 41 years old, but, as she playfully wrote in “Emma”: “It was a delightful visit — perfect, in being much too short.”
    Seriously? A short life and spinsterhood hardly seems fair for the author of “Pride and Prejudice,” a title that cleverly refers to proud Mr. Darcy and sparkling Elizabeth Bennet. As many of us know by heart, Mr. Darcy has elegant manners and character, from one the finest families in England. He’s captivated by Elizabeth’s beautiful dark eyes and daring repartee at dances, but she finds him cool and superior — at first. Then she gets a look at his magnificent estate, Pemberley. As Austen notes, it would be something to be mistress of Pemberley.
    Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage. Each pairs a deserving young woman with a man lucky enough to deserve her. It might be a family friend, a ship captain or a cousin. Each is a variation on finding a suitable match. My favorite, “Persuasion,” is Austen’s last. Anne Elliot, who has lost the bloom of youth at “seven and twenty,” has a second encounter with a man she once turned down. Still dreamy, and now possessing a good fortune, Frederick Wentworth seeks “a strong mind with sweetness of manner.”
    But what about Austen’s own flushed cheeks and charm out on a dance floor? Some slender straws and
    stories, memories documented in family journals and letters, were handed down about her young womanhood. Were there missed opportunities? Was she unlucky in love? One contemporary described her as “a husband-hunting butterfly.”
    Along came beguiling Tom Lefroy, whom young Jane fancied. “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself … everything most shocking,” she wrote in a letter. This scene suggests she was not frigid with men, as Virginia Woolf was. The narrative goes that Tom, who aimed to study law, had no money to “give her joy,” the expression for an engagement. Too bad, because he later became Chief Justice of Ireland.
    On a December night in 1802, when Jane was on the cusp of turning 27, Jane and Cassandra went to visit Steventon, the town where they grew up. They stayed with well-off family friends, the Bigg-Withers, who had two daughters and a son, Harris, who lived in the manor house, Manydown Park. During a party at the Bigg-Withers’s home, Harris proposed to Jane, her one and only proposal. Her ticket out of spinsterhood.
    Flustered, she said yes. There were reasons to accept: social approval, security, life as mistress of a 1,500-acre estate with a lovely staircase and a drawing room. These were nice things, not to be turned down lightly.
    But this was not the script Austen had in mind, not for herself nor her heroines. Harris was a catch on paper, yet he had a stutter. He flunked out of Oxford. He was six years younger. She never considered him a romantic prospect, more like the little brother of the household.
    Jane went through a dark night. Sleepless, she realized the proposal would radically alter everything. As mistress of Manydown Park, Austen would contend with heavy responsibilities that would sap her daily writing energy. In addition, childbirth was downright dangerous in those days. Did she want to worry chicken and horses, too?
    At her age, she was already closing in on spinsterhood for life, and she didn’t mind that much. Austen could either live the life of marching up to matrimony — or she could write about that life. She could not do both, so she had to choose. At 26 going on 27, she knew her own genius. Her dialogue still floats and speaks from the page like notes in a Mozart sonata. (She played the piano every morning.) She knew she had to keep faith with her chiseled social realism, the first flawless portraits of young women in English literature. Eventually she realized that she needed to stay single, to get her work done.
    Austen wept in agony. She withdrew her answer to Bigg-Wither in the morning. Then the two pairs of sisters got in the carriage and rode over to the Austen parsonage. They parted in tears. Jane and Cassandra insisted their brother James take them right away to Bath, where they were then living with their parents. It was a shattering trauma for Jane.
    The budding Austen, who flowered into a master of irony, was all too aware that marriage was the best life chance a woman had to improve her lot. In fact, it was the only chance to change her destiny in Austen’s genteel gentry society, circa 1800. That was what her art was made of. No doubt she caught the bitter irony that the only way for Austen to improve her own lot was to keep writing and never marry.

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