On Reading Austen

A couple of years ago, to take a break from the arduous preparation work of my college festival, my girlfriends and I  watched the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira  Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Weeks and years after that,  we could not stop gushing over his declaration of love; “I love  you. Most ardently,” said with his soft eyes, the raindrops falling  from his hair, his lips slightly wet.

Austen weaved Mr. Darcy as the perfect female fantasy; he was  rich, handsome, was sociable to only those he valued, and  respected by everybody, unless by those who misunderstood  him. I often associated Austen with this archetype.

To celebrate the bicentennial of her 200th death anniversary last week, I read Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey (which was her second last book to be published) to dive deeper into Austen-world.

Sense and Sensibility, written when Austen herself was young, is richly detailed and is a window to the style, the characterisation and the dramatics that make every Austen book a pleasurable reading, some less than others.

Sarcasm and dry humour (“…for a fine sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.”), the variety of people in the Dashwoods, the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings, the Ms. Steeles, and the Farrars, and the making and breaking and uniting of hearts through misunderstandings, greed and lies, and a sense of society that Austen already hates by her first book are more abundantly explored here than in any of her other works, except perhaps Mansfield Park.

The grand work is somewhat unconventional even for Austen, who did a lot to romantic fiction by simply giving all her female leads the power of choice to choose their husbands. Critics and feminists have pointed out, often enough, that ultimately the books focus on a happy ending and must end in marriage.

But in the Victorian age, everybody thought marriage as a phase one must get into. By giving her females a choice, and eventually in Persuasion, writing about the middle age of romance, she broke everything girls then knew as the universally acknowledged truth.

From S&S itself, Austen was willing to make space for everything – second chances for males and females, for old and young, and perhaps, even malice and greed – as much as for virtue and nobility.

Marianne gives all her heart out to Willoughby, who though he loves her, loves his lifestyle more and finds a wife to that end. Elinor finds in Edward an honourable man, and marries him despite his limited financials. Captain Brandon finds in Marianne a former love reborn, and with his patience and persistence, wins over her heart, the nearly two decade difference notwithstanding.

It is a wild, wild book. A mother disowns her son, a woman abandons her lover for his own brother, Marianne almost dies of a fever, the Dashwood family is treated unfairly by their half brother and his wife. In the books published after that, one does not just find this same audacity of thought – perhaps her readers reacted too wildly, or maybe she grew up and toned herself down, sobered up before she got to her typewriter.

The ghosts of these elements remain, Emma marries someone much older to her, Isabelle Thorpe leaves a man for another after the engagement in Northanger Abbey, but the rawness is polished off in all these cases. To some extent, Marianne feels like she’s settling for Captain Brandon because he has been so good to her and her family. (Secret: I will always ship Elinor and Captain Brandon).

In that sense, her first work had a lot of exceptions. Elinor remains the only one to not marry up. Marianne is the only sensibly energetic female; in comparison, only Lydia comes to mind and we all know what a disaster she was.

Northanger Abbey, her last work portraying a young girl, is much tamer and could very well be Jane Bennett’s own story. So plain is the character, that you neither rejoice in her triumphs or sympathise in her agonies. It is not unlikely, given that Miss Morland is from a humble background, but this premise does not hold enough always.

Catherine is a very real character, and unlike most of the smart heroines who attract only the best of men, she only gets the basic boy on her plate, but perhaps just because she goes through the same struggles as the awkward loner from high school, she is a bland and an honest simpleton even as she reflects on the inconsistencies in society which much common sense. (“But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate to be understood?”)

And because Austen’s talent lies in weaving people out of ink and paper, whether it is the likeable gossip monger Mrs. Jennings who goes ‘hallooing about’ good-naturedly, the jittery Mrs. Bennett, the headstrong Lizzy, the silly Lydia, the beautiful Jane, the lady Emma or the happily young-in-love Marianne, that the lack of a compelling lead in NA is unwelcome. Perhaps because she tried so hard to focus on plot, to bring out Udolpho in Northanger, that she could do justice to neither.

If you need an introduction to Austen, or a marathon, we say start in chronological order of her complete works but skip Northanger and jump to Persuasion. Then, watch the Pride and Prejudice movie and mini-series and re-read the book again.

Favourite Quote:

You have gained a new source of enjoyment and it is well enough to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.

You can buy her books, in beautiful hardcovers, here.



*Feature Image Courtesy – Odyssey

Prakruti Maniar is editor and partner of Purple Pencil Project. She loves all things language and literature, and is committed to bringing non-English Indian and world literature to the mainstream.

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