There are many people who believe that Jane Austen is the greatest of all the female writers, and I am willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt, as they have probably not read as much as I have, including many female writers. For instance, as good as Jane Austen might be as a writer, to my knowledge she never wrote a book about a man who gets his face cut off, like Aphra Behn did. Nor did she ever write a novel about a woman who makes love with a dead person (“Wuthering Heights”), as one of the Bronte sisters did. And she probably didn’t have an affair with another woman, as George Sand did (with Kate Chopin-- by the way, “George Sand” is a pseudonym for a woman with a woman’s name), although that doesn’t reflect on her writing, I believe that in order to be an effective writer, the author must have studied all aspects of erotic play, most especially should women writers indulge their Sapphic instincts. Regardless, this is not to diminish the accomplishments of Jane Austen, as I will illuminate right now.
As always, these notes are meant only to be a starting-off point for the serious student. They are no substitute for a reading of the actual texts.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: Although in the original publication this novel is described as being written “BY A LADY,” we know that it was Jane Austen who wrote it because it said so in the credits of the movie version. In this classic work, Emma Thompson, the older sister, represents “sense,” and Kate Winslet represents “sensibility,” based on the temperament of each sister. They go through many problems and complications because it appears that Hugh Grant is going to marry the other woman, and not Emma Thompson, and some things happen with Kate Winslet, too. Then Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson get together and Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman get together, and everyone is happy, especially the reader, who feels like he has accomplished something by reading this wonderful book.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: In this classic work, Mr Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice gets in the way of their getting married, until the end when they do get married. Sorry; spoiler alert. But between the part when Mr Darcy first proposes and gets rejected by Elizabeth, and the part when he proposes again and is accepted, you learn about all kinds of convoluted stuff, including things about how the law worked back in Jane Austen’s time. For instance, it isn’t fair that Mr Collins will inherit the Bennet estate, but that is the way the law worked back then. Also, women marry for money and status, which is kind of the way it still is today, except it’s a little bit different, since they get to keep more of the money now, and they can become famous by making a sex tape.
MANSFIELD PARK: In this novel, your favorite, the ironic thing is that Fanny, who is the best one of all, is treated as if she is inferior to her spoiled and irresponsible cousins. In fact, she is the best one of all, and is rewarded by getting to marry Edmund, although she was actually supposed to marry the other guy, and Edmund was supposed to marry Mary. What surprises the modern reader about this wonderful novel is that the author writes about alternate realities in this way, as scientists are discovering that quantum mechanics allows for worlds in which Fanny will marry the other guy, and Edmund will marry Mary.
EMMA: I will be honest with you. I did not read this book as closely as I read the other ones. I thought that Emma’s neck was too distracting. She also does not have any interest in romantic love, which is mainly what I am interested in (that and three-ways), and also mainly what attracts the modern reader to her works. I will say though, that when Emma finally gets together with Mr Knightley, you love it because it is so well written.
Jane Austen wrote many other novels, but I think that to talk about any of the other ones would diminish your enjoyment of them, when you pick them up and read them yourself for the first time. Also, I have not read them. But I have heard they are all good, and you will be thrilled by the way in which they speak to you, the modern reader, even though they are very old and illuminate a bygone era, a time before women had the option of making sex tapes to improve their status and make more money. Happy reading!