The Sunday Salon: Why I Read Jane Austen

Happy happy!  We had a welcome preview of spring this weekend.  I spent Saturday morning in Philadelphia.  My husband and I took a long walk through various neighborhoods in center city, and explored an old cemetery.  The sun was shining, there were lots of people out walking their dogs, and it was truly invigorating.  While I know the weather will probably turn cold again before the month is out, it was a welcome break from winter.

Today we’re having a relaxing day at home, and besides the usual humdrum weekend chores, I hope to carve out some serious time for my re-read of Pride and Prejudice.  I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels, most in the last five years.  But it’s been about 20 years since I read P&P.  The re-reading idea began germinating last year, after seeing the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City (that link will take you to the online exhibit archive; you can read about my visit here).  Last month, in a post about re-reading, I proposed reading P&P once a year just to appreciate Austen’s brilliance.  My friend Tui commented,

Every winter at some point, I reread a Jane Austen and have for decades. Why? Every time I do, something new comes out of each book but also it is like walking and talking with a good friend, sharing her observations of everything from nature to people.

And she got me thinking about why I enjoy Austen’s work. Before reading a single paragraph of P&P, I opened a book I bought recently: A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  Editor Susannah Carson had me from the second page of the introduction, when she wrote, “Austen’s novels lend themselves to a certain kind of involvement which goes far beyond the black and white of the printed page. For many of us, the delights of reading are polychrome, and once we have entered this vibrant world we quite simply never want to leave.”  Then in her essay The Radiance of Jane Austen, Eudora Welty discussed how Austen needed very little material to make her “vibrant world” come alive:

Given: a household in the country, then add its valuable neighbor — and there, under her hands, is the full presence of the world. As if coming in response to a call for good sense, life is at hand and astir and in strong vocal power. At once there is convenient and constant communication between those two houses. The day, the week, the season fill to repletion with news, arrivals, speculation, and fresh strawberries, with tumult and crises, and the succeeding invitations.  Everybody doing everything together — what mastery she has over the scene, the family scene!  The dinner parties, the walking parties, the dances, picnics, concerts, excursions to Lyme Regis and sojourns at Bath, all give their testimony to Jane Austen’s ardent belief — which our century’s city dwellers find odd — that the unit of everything worth knowing in life is in the family, that family relationships are the natural basis of all other relationships.

But those scenes are always understated, even the most potentially elaborate settings, such as P&P’s ball at Netherfield.  Susanna Clarke points out that rather than focus on the ball’s elegance, Austen simply notes that Elizabeth Bennet “had dressed with more than usual care.”  Much is left to our imagination (filled in by film adaptations of course), and all the action in Austen’s novels is about emotion, laced with her unique comedic gift.

When at last I sat down to read those first few pages of Pride and Prejudice, I was instantly immersed in the “vibrant world” of the Bennet family, the two houses at Longbourn and Netherfield, and the social circle composed of the Bennets, Bingleys, and of course Mr. Darcy.  I’ve devoured forgotten details, and laughed out loud at certain characters, like the well-meaning but tactless Mrs. Bennet, and the garrulous and boring Mr. Collins.  Just as Susannah Carson predicted, I quite simply don’t want to leave!

Yes, I think from now on I’ll read an Austen every year.  How about you?

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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24 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Why I Read Jane Austen

  1. I read P&P for the first time in December. I enjoyed it much more than I thought. That Mrs. Bennet had me in stitches.

  2. I’ve only read one book by Jane Austen and that was Emma. I plan on reading Pride and Prejudice after I’ve completed my current read.

  3. P&P is a wonderful story – and I thought the film adaptation was great. I haven’t read all of Austen’s novels (yet), but do enjoy her…especially her sense of humor!

    • Wendy, although purists consider the 1995 BBC adaptation of P&P to be the best, I have a soft spot in my heart for the 2005 feature film with Keira Knightley. I took my girls to see it and it really inspired Kate — both as a reader and a writer. She even wrote a mighty fine (if I do say so) college application essay about it!

  4. I’ve been reading at least one Jane Austen a year since 2006, and this past December I finished off with her masterpiece, Pride & Prejudice. I’m still thinking about it. Although my reading an-Austen-a-year project is complete, I think I’ll keep going. In 2011 I’ll either reread Emma, which was my first Austen, or the Annotated Pride and Prejudice (over 700 pages!).

    • There’s an annotated P&P?! Oh my. My plan cycle through the rest of her books, re-reading Emma next year, but that annotated version could be interesting sometime.

  5. Hello,

    This is another blogging Laura here. There seem to be quite a few of us. I only really learned to appreciate Jane Austen on a reread. I read P & P for the first time in college, and didn’t like it. I think I was too busy and unfocused. I probably wouldn’t have tried again, except that I had to lead a discussion of it for the survey class I was a TA for in graduate school. I really enjoyed it the second go round.

    Here is my Sunday Salon post: http://hawthornescarlet.blogspot.com/2011/03/sunday-salon-some-old-favorites.html

    • Hello Laura, thanks for stopping by! I think P&P is one of those books you get more out of every time you read it — partly because of the book itself, and partly because we see different things at different points in our lives. My older daughter first read it when she was about 14 and I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of it the next time.

  6. I don’t know about every year, but probably every couple of years I read at least P&P, possibly Emma. A Truth Universally Acknowledged sounds like a great read, too. Happy Sunday.

    • Thanks Robyn. Yes, I’m enjoying the book of essays also. I’m just going to read a bit here and there as the mood strikes, rather than all at once.

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  8. I’ve read P&P and Emma. Looking forward to reading the other Austen books. And have put the book of essays on my Amazon wish list. I love reading books about books. Or why certain books mean so much to authors.

    • Josh’s mom, thanks for stopping by! I also find “why certain books mean so much to authors” very interesting. It always gives me a new perspective or highlights things I may have missed.

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  11. Informative post and high marks for encouraging the uninitiated to dive into the pages of Pride and Prejudice!
    As you said, some of us love P&P so much we don’t want to leave. In fact, some of us downright REFUSE to leave. We read, we reread, we watch and collect all the movie adaptations, we read sequels, and if we are truly obsessed (like me), we write a sequel so that we can spend another 9-12 months in that world! Thanks for spreading the word. (shannonwinslow.wordpress.com)

    • Shannon, thanks for stopping by! I just enjoyed browsing your blog and look forward to future posts. And I think you have great taste in blog design 🙂

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