I just completed a tour de Jane Austen today; here are some short thoughts about her stories and characters, followed by my ranking of favorites:
(Note: This post originally ran on my other blog five years ago after I read the full Jane Austen canon for the first time. I’ve updated it to reflect my thoughts in light of a few recent re-reads.)
1. There is a reason why Pride and Prejudice is the best-known and best-loved of Austen’s novels. It’s Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Oh, wait, that’s not where I was going with that. P&P is actually far and away the best of the six novels, mostly because Elizabeth Bennet is the spunkiest, most likable heroine of all. She has a sense of humor, she knows and speaks her mind, and she grows as a character between the beginning and end of the novel. What a concept!
2. Speaking of speaking one’s mind: I’ll be the first to agree that totally unfiltered twenty-first century Americans could learn from the tact and decorum of the many genteel characters to grace Austen’s pages. But if some of these heroines would occasionally express their mental turmoil in actual, audible words to the pertinent party, these novels would be a lot shorter. (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, ANNE ELLIOT, AND YOU TOO, CAPTAIN WENTWORTH even though you are not a heroine.)
3. Some friends and I recently completed a rousing discussion of the “Which Jane Austen character are you?” question and the group decided that my Austen double was Mrs. Weston from Emma. But of course I’d much rather be a heroine than a supporting character, so I am revising my match to be Elinor from Sense and Sensibility. She’s quiet, passive to a fault, dutiful, emotionally reserved, and family-centered. Plus, she gets to marry Edward Ferrars, who was chosen as Stephen’s match, so how perfect is that?
Lastly, my preferences, in order:
1. Pride and Prejudice. The central characters in this book are more complex and dynamic than any other leading couples. The supporting characters (Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins in particular) are funny and quirky without making me CRAZY.
2. Emma. It’s possible that my judgment is impaired by the fact that I cannot even deal with Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, but I truly did enjoy this book on its own merit. Emma is a very silly heroine, but I love her anyway; and her ability to receive correction and admit her faults is admirable. I listened to an audio version of this one not too long ago, and I was delighted to discover character details and subtle foreshadowing that I had missed in my first reading. (This is the mark of a classic, you’ll remember: when a book becomes more amazing, not less, the more times you read it!)
3. Northanger Abbey. Surprise! This was one I had never read before. The characters are not very interesting or well-developed, but I loved the tongue-in-cheek narrator and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself too seriously.
4. Sense and Sensibility. Despite my self-identification with Elinor, the story moves a little slow. Plus, Marianne is super annoying and Willoughby just WON’T GO AWAY.
5. Persuasion. This is my most recent read, and I may be posting some longer thoughts and quotes as a separate review. But here is the short version: this book was better than I remembered, and I very much enjoyed reading it. But I do still stand by the complaints I raised here, and since I have NOT recently read Northanger Abbey or Sense & Sensibility, I can’t say if I would rank these titles differently. I’ll have to read them again soon and get back to you!
6. Mansfield Park.
My first time through, choices 5 and 6 were in competition for last place; both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot have the spunk and zest of warm milk. The only way I can comprehend that men fall in love with them is that they are surrounded by other characters that are completely uninteresting, unlikeable, and/or already married (not that that stopped Mr. Crawford from running off with Mrs. Rushworth! What a scandal!).
All in all, any time with Jane Austen is time well spent. I’d love to hear about YOUR favorite Janes!