The bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, following heart-breakingly soon after the bicentenaries of the publication of four of her novels, has inspired a rash of books, articles and programmes about her life, work and legacy. Many people more qualified (and several less) than I have analysed her novels in order to explain her technique, extrapolate her opinions and demonstrate her brilliance. I won’t try to convince anyone reading this that Jane Austen’s novels are amongst the finest written in English (although I think they are) – in my experience, you are either a reader who ‘gets’ Austen and her witty, ironic narrative voice, sliding imperceptibly in and out of her characters’ perspective, or you aren’t. And if you don’t hear that voice, her novels will be little more than enjoyable romances or tedious social comedies in which nothing much happens while the status quo remains unchallenged; my own husband, an otherwise excellent man, summarises them as ‘some bird gets married’; however, he reads Lord of the Rings at least once a year, so his literary judgements need not detain us.
What I’d like to do here is describe what Jane Austen – by which I mean her novels – means to me. I can’t remember when I first became aware of her. I didn’t grow up in a house with any of her books (although there were always ‘good’ books around – I read my mother’s copy of Jane Eyre when I was 12). My first definite memory is watching the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and I read the novel a few years later when I was in my mid-teens. Many of the book’s thematic preoccupations, such as class and economics, went straight over my head and I think I may have thought that Marianne was the novel’s true heroine. I don’t think I opened another classic until my early 20s – my teenage years coincided with the rise of the ‘bonkbuster’ and more time was spent reading Lace or anything by Jackie Collins than improving my mind. Nevertheless, I had read one Jane Austen novel (as well as Jane Eyre and at some point, Wuthering Heights), and so considered myself tolerably well-read. I did not read Austen again for another ten years, until the BBC serialised Pride and Prejudice in 1995 (the much-loved Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth version), followed by the release in early 1996 of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles. By this time I had of course realised that I was not well-read and had embarked upon a programme of self-improvement. I was serving in the armed forces and spending a lot of time away from home and before I embarked on one long detachment to the Middle East, my husband presented me with The Penguin Jane Austen, containing Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Although I can perhaps see why Northanger Abbey was omitted, the absence of Persuasion is less explicable and I didn’t read those two novels for another ten years. However, even with those two absent, it is a weighty tome. The print is small and the novels printed without introductory or explanatory notes. Nevertheless, over the course of a year or so that saw me deployed to the Middle East, the Balkans and Northern Ireland for extended periods, I managed to read all four. Having seen the recent screen adaptations I was now alerted to Austen’s social commentary and more attuned to the language of the first two novels, which also carried me through Mansfield Park (read without critical assistance and limited historical knowledge, I’m afraid the references to the slave trade and other contemporary debates rather passed me by the first time I read it) and Emma.
When I had babies, a few years later, I filled long night (and day) feeds reading not just Austen but other classic novels and listening to them serialised on Radio 4 (how much of my education I owe to Radio 4!). I watched TV adaptations and sought out DVDs of Austen novels, to compare different interpretations. I read popular history books about the era in which Austen lived and other authors who were described as ‘like Jane Austen’ (Georgette Heyer whose writing, although sometimes witty, lacks Austen’s acute social commentary and Barbara Pym, who I think is a great deal more like Austen in both her ironic narrative voice and thematic concerns). Reading and re-reading Austen’s novels, I could see what she was doing – using wit and irony to expose the hypocrisies and double standards of her characters and through them the society they (and she) lived in – but not quite how she did it. In 2008 I started a Literature degree with the Open University and began to learn how to critically read and analyse a text. One of the first essays I wrote was an analysis of a passage in Pride and Prejudice, having learnt the vocabulary of free indirect discourse, focalisation and narrative voice. I began to understand how Austen created the effects that so delighted me and other readers, drawing the reader into a character’s consciousness and then pulling back with a witty or satirical comment. Furthermore, the more I understood what Austen was doing or saying, the greater my appreciation of her novels. My academic focus now lies elsewhere but I still read as many books as I can, both popular and academic, about Austen’s novels. Seeing how Austen created her novels has only increased my admiration of them and of the woman who received only two years formal schooling. I read Pride and Prejudice every year and still notice something new every time; Austen’s novels have become for me a sort of comfort read, not because they are blandly reassuring (they aren’t – whether not her characters’ marriages will be happy is often doubtful, or at least ambiguous) but because I take great comfort from the fact that novels like Austen’s – nuanced, sophisticated and demanding of the reader – could enjoy the popularity and prestige that they do. In an era in which public debate appears dominated by increasingly shrill, vicious and ignorant voices, Austen’s cool, witty and satirical social observation is a powerful antidote to the rhetoric we are all subject to and perhaps participate in. Austen’s novels endure because many of her preoccupations are (or should be) our preoccupations – whose information to trust, how to listen to those we might instinctively disagree with, the importance of self-knowledge and self-mastery and how to recognise our own errors, prejudices and folly as quickly as we denounce it in others. And now, as Mr Bennet might have said, I have delighted you long enough.