Here’s the Thing About … Jane Austen

Friends, we are barreling toward the arbitrary deadline when we recognize the changing of one year into the next. I may work my way up to a longer Jane Austen series. (We live in hope!) But for now, a highly subjective and yet unquestionably correct ranking of all Austen’s novels. (Just kidding—question me!)

6. Mansfield Park – Here’s the thing about Mansfield Park: both the protagonist, Fanny Price, and her final love interest, baby preacher Edmund Bertram, are judgmental, self-righteous assholes. Yes, Fanny suffers under the snarky mercies of her wealthier relatives. But the cruel pleasure the novel takes in the downfall Maria Bertram, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a fool who gets caught taking some joy in life with the rakish Henry Crawford, feels entirely unnecessary.

Mansfield Park is saved, somewhat, by the excellent 1999 film version, directed by Patricia Rozema and starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny and a very sexy Allesandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz as siblings Henry and Mary Crawford. This movie version turns Fanny into a writer, using Austen’s real juvenalia for Fanny’s texts, and also touches on the slavery at the heart of the Bertram family’s wealthy. It also makes for a steamier than usual version of Austen, while also exhibiting some real sympathy for the plight in which Maria finds herself.

(Watch ‘Insecure’ on HBO because it’s great and Issa Rae rocks.)

5. Northanger Abbey – Here’s the thing about Northanger Abbey: It’s got a decent joke about gothic romance as its starting point. That joke is funny….for the first thirty pages or so. And then it starts to feel like Tracy Morgan continuing to bust out the old see-saw, “I love “X” so much, I want to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant” in 30 Rock. Austen’s satire tends to be more sly than this and I wonder what made her go so whole hog with this novel.

My experience reading ‘Northanger.’ (Also, watch Fleabag on Amazon Prime because it’s great and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius.)

4. Emma – Here’s the thing about Emma: It’s good, but also too long. The various misadventures of handsome, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse make for good reading but perhaps not quite good enough to justify such a number of pages. That said, Emma stands alone among Austen heroines in being charming despite her non-trivial flaws and foibles. Perhaps because Emma has access to all of life’s blessings, she comes in for a fair bit of scolding from love interest Mr. Knightley, who ends up falling a bit flat as a hero since he comes off more as a bossy father than an adoring admirer. But it has a particularly funny supporting cast who balance out the wagging of Knightley’s finger. The Eltons alone are worth the price of admission.

3. Sense and Sensibility – Here’s the thing about Sense and Sensibility: It was the first Austen novel I read. I loved it and for a long time considered it my favorite. I also love the Ang Lee/Emmma Thompson adaptation. So it will always hold a special place in my heart. I also like a “sisters” book and find the relationship between Mariann and Elinor quite lovely. The wit is not as sharp as in some of Austen’s other books but the recurrent proto-feminist critique of how the economic system of Austen’s world de-powers women comes through strongest in S&S. And unlike Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility generates empathy, rather than disdain, for the “fallen” woman.

2. Pride and Prejudice – Here’s the thing about Pride and Prejudice: It’s great, as my recent, longer post about it makes clear. Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s funniest book, exhibiting her unique ability to take the piss out of the pompous and the dumb. It also features one of the great romantic pairings in literature, between the jolly and lovable Elizabeth Bennet and the prideful but heartfelt Mr. Darcy. But as with the best of Austen’s works, the supporting cast of characters elevates a simple love story into a hilarious examination of the ways that marriages are made.

1. Persuasion – Here’s the thing about Persuasion: It’s so, so good. I really like Anne Elliot as a protagonist because of her maturity (27, near-elderly as Austen heroines go) combined with her imperfection. Anne has allowed her family and the needs of others to subsume her life and personality, that is until the return of her former fiancé, Frederick Wentworth, now a rich captain in the Navy. After years of setting aside her own desires, Anne finally takes a chance at happiness in trying to win Wentworth back. Persuasion includes the usual array of foible-filled fools but also a gentler supporting cast, full of people to genuinely care for.

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