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Monday, August 27, 2018

The Newbie Janeite | guest post from Deb!

Today's guest post comes from Deb, one of the writers at The Classics Club, and a fledgling Janeite. She's just embarking on her Austen journey, and set out to see what it is that makes Jane so popular and beloved all these long years later.
Check out her post below, let us know your thoughts in the comments, and make sure to check out The Classics Club for more classic love!

Portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister, Cassandra

For some reason, I completely missed Austen in high school and college. I know almost nothing about this author everyone raves about; I know almost nothing about her books that are so beloved.

I am a Newbie to Jane Austen.

I have a lot of questions.

Who was Jane Austen?
What books did she write?
What are her books about?
Why are Jane Austen's books considered classics?
Why do so many people like her books?

Let's see what I can find out.

Who was Jane Austen?

It is generally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists of all time. She lived only forty-one years and never married or left her family home. She wrote and published her novels in the early 1800's when women traditionally lived very small lives centering on their homes and families.

What books did she write?

She only wrote six books in her short life:

Pride and Prejudice  
Sense and Sensibility 
Mansfield Park 
Northanger Abbey 

What are her books about?

Austen scholar Debra Teachman writes, "Her novels are often considered to focus only on the lives of a few individuals in a few families living, for the most part, in rather confined and conservative country towns."

Author Carol Shields describes Jane Austen's novels as being "about intelligent women who take themselves seriously, but not solemnly."

Book critic William Deresiewicz describes in his book A Jane Austen Education what he took from each of Jane Austen's books: from Emma, he learns about everyday matters; from Pride and Prejudice, about growing up; from Northanger Abbey, about learning to learn; from Mansfield Park, being good; from Persuasion, true friends; and from Sense and Sensibility, falling in love. From Jane Austen, he says, he learned, in short, "things that really matter."

Why are Jane Austen's books considered classics?

As Nicholas Dames wrote in a 2017 article in the Atlantic, "Austen has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet." 

Author J.B. Priestley finds that Jane Austen is able to examine people with a "cool though sparkling" detachment. He notes that she creates "a tiny world of her own" in which she "coolly and exquisitely present(s) us with her version of the perpetual human comedy, in which we all have to play our parts." Priestley affirms that that is what makes Jane Austen a great novelist.

"Jane Austen's work," author Carol Shields writes, "revolves around the fusing of moral seriousness with comic drama." She goes on to say, "The family was the source of her art....It might be argued that all literature is ultimately about family, the creation of structures---drama, poetry, fiction---that reflect our immediate and randomly assigned circle of others, what families do to us and how they can be reimagined or transcended."

Debra Teachman notes that Austen expanded the concept of a novel, a form of writing that was just developing during Austen's time, to that of a key literary form. Austen herself defined the best of novels as "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

Why do so many people like her books?

"Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities," writes Dames.

Austen, Lionel Trilling observed, is “congenial to the modern person who feels himself ill-accommodated by his own time.”

Renowned scholar A.C. Bradley finds the humor in Austen's novels to be one of her chief appeals to the reader. He writes, "Jane Austen regards the characters, good and bad alike, with ironical amusement, because they never see the situation as it really is and as she sees it. This is the deeper source of our unbroken pleasure in reading her. We constantly share her point of view, and are aware of the amusing difference between the fact and its appearance to the actors."

Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra

What else should I know about Jane Austen? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I explored these reference materials for answers:

Bradley, A.C. ""Jane Austen"." English Association. Cambridge. 1911. Lecture.
Dames, Nicholas. "Jane Austen Is Everything." Atlantic, vol. 320, no. 2, Sept. 2017, pp. 92-103. 
Deresiewicz, William. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike, 2011. Print.
Peltason, Timothy. "Mind and Mindlessness in Jane Austen." Hudson Review, vol. 67, no. 4, Winter2015, pp. 609-633.
Priestley, John Boynton. "Austen Portrays a Small World with Humor and Detachment." Four English Novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960. 78-83. Print.
Shields, Carol. Jane Austen. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Teachman, Debra. Student Companion to Jane Austen. Westport (Conn.): Greenwood, 2000. Print.

Jane Austen, Austen in August, blog event
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  1. I'd say you are well on your way to leaving rookie status to pro. What I have learned is that Austen is for any age, any gender, many tastes- she's universal as are her stories.
    Oh, and do dip into her shorts and unfinished works if you haven't already b/c there's a lot of good gems to mine there.

  2. Bravo! I feel like this is a post I could save and reshare with friends over and over again.


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