Reading Through the Bookcase: Jane Austen

I only have three of Jane Austen’s novels — Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility — so those were the only ones I read in my “read through the bookcase” immersion. And I remain convinced that Pride and Prejudice is far and away the best of the three. Sense and Sensibility didn’t make sense at all to me. And Emma…well. It’s got its own story.


I read Emma first, and my copy includes a long Introduction. The author claims that this book is Austen’s most mature book, showing how her writing had matured and developed. That sure wasn’t the impression I got! But he did say something I really agreed with, though: that you get something very different each time you read this book. I believe he ascribed this fact to changes in your own life; the different response to Emma depends on the different person that you are, each time you read it.

In that case, I’ve changed again, and how. When I first read the book, as a teenager, I wasn’t thrilled by it and found it a bit boring. Then, perhaps fifteen years later, I read it again and really liked it. Now, on my third read, mumbledy-mumbledy years later, I really, really did NOT like it. Though it did get better as it went along.

In the first half or so, though, I kept wanting to yell at all the insipid people with their insipid lives and their insipid minds, “Is any single one of you capable of talking about something of actual INTEREST??” The shallow superficiality, and the way people could talk for hours, day after day, about a couple of paragraphs in a letter, just made me want to throw the book at the wall. And the way things worked out in the end, for all the major characters, seemed awfully contrived. (SPOILER ALERT:) Mrs. Churchill’s death is awfully handy, for example, the way it clears the way for Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

So I found the book frustrating and kind of boring, and way too handy.

Sense and Sensibility

But speaking of contrived! (I read Sense & Sensibility third, but I’m saving the best till last, heh.) While there was plenty of angst and drama in this book, the resolution of it all was so implausible that I was grinding my teeth by the end. Again, the two final pairings were simply handy, but they did not make sense to me at all.

(If you haven’t read the book and don’t want spoilers, maybe you can just skip this whole part.) While the characters of all the women, including Elinor and Marianne, were quite well developed, the character of Colonel Brandon was barely developed by the end, while Edward Ferrars remained nothing but a pale, pale ghost. Even if these guys were okay characters, there was no reason on earth that either of the sisters should have fallen for either of them. I mean, would Marianne really have fallen in love with Brandon, even after she became wiser? (And for that matter, would he really have fallen in love with her?) And Elinor was so strong, with such backbone, that it’s beyond me to imagine how she could have fallen in love with the pale ghost, though I can imagine how he could have fallen for her. It just. wasn’t. plausible.

So no. This one simply didn’t work for me. Even if I had Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman in my head through the whole book.


Pride and Prejudice

And once again, I discovered that it truly wasn’t hype. Pride and Prejudice really, really was the best book of these three, and frankly, one of the best books I’ve read, period. That’s not because of Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle either. (If the quartet mentioned above couldn’t sell me on Sense and Sensibility, these two probably wouldn’t manage it with this book either.) It’s like all of the flaws in the other two books are almost consciously contradicted in this one.

The characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, for example. We know them so well by the end; we’ve gotten into their minds, we’ve seen them mature and grow — they are extremely well developed. I might want Jane to be a little less saintly and Mr. Bingley to have considerably more backbone and discernment, but Elizabeth and Darcy? Beautifully developed. The Gardiners are great characters, too. Mr. Collins is a bit of a caricature, as is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but the plausibly practical Charlotte Lucas adds a nice balance to them.

The whole plot is plausible, the entire way through! Even when Darcy seems to miraculously save the day where it comes to Wickham and Lydia, that’s not just contrived as a way to wipe away any final doubts Elizabeth might have about him. There are good and plausible reasons why he does what he does, and his actions fit with other things we’ve already learned in the plot and fit with the changes we’ve already begun to see in his character. Every chance meeting fits into all the other events without feeling at all contrived. And the resolutions of the problems also seem plausible, and the characters seem to fit together for very good reasons. And the ones who don’t — Lydia and Wickham — well, we know exactly why they’re together, and that’s all part of the plausible plot too.

So of the three books, the only one I really liked is Pride and Prejudice. Unless Jane Austen really outdid herself in the other three books (and I’ve never gotten the impression that that’s the case), I’d say that this was the pinnacle of her achievement.



    1. mark1147 says:

      I totally agree that Pride and Prejudice is one of the best books ever. (I never got to read Emma or S & S, though, so this comment isn’t about comparing them.) I was about 15 when P & P was assigned in my sophomore h.s. English class — and it was such a treat, from start to finish, that I’ve longed for the same feeling it gave me whenever I’ve opened another novel. (Of course, that feeling seldom occurs!)

      Everything you say about its characters, situations, and plausibility rings true (even though I haven’t re-read P&P in 20 years or more, after first reading it 50 years ago). What I can add to your remarks is this: the plot’s pacing is marvelous and (for me) makes it a page-turner. And that delightful opening line (such a grabber!) just captivates me still.

      • Phyl says:

        Pacing! Yes, that’s what is so superb about P&P, Mark. There are very few moments (if any) where you’re kind of treading water, wishing something new would happen. The plot really moves along, without feeling rushed, and each new situation or action really belongs there — you never feel like it was just stuck in so there would be something to occupy the reader for a while.

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