** Contains spoilers for most Austen novels ** (Do I still have to warn you when a book is 200 years old?)
It is one of our family traditions to love Jane Austen. With a grandfather who has re-read Pride and Prejudice every Christmas for the last 50+ years to set the tone, how could we not? My mum showed me Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (the film with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman) when I was 14 years old, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I regularly watch adaptations of each of the ‘great six’ and started reading the books as soon as I had learnt enough English to understand them. I even used to have a habit of watching the 2005 BBC mini-series of Emma every time I got my heart broken by some boy, because “let us think of superior men, there are plenty more suitable suitors around”.
I’ve recently been listening to Austen’s novels as audio books. I found a recording of Pride and Prejudice on Librivox, an app with public domain audio books that I cannot recommend enough, and listened to it over the Christmas holidays. I had to get used to the American narrator for a few chapters, but after that it was very enjoyable. A few weeks ago I listened to Persuasion, then Sense and Sensibility and I’m currently listening to Emma. Someone has just gifted Jane Fairfax a pianoforte, but who could it be?!
Listening to/ reading the novels always makes me wonder which one is my favourite. I used to think it was Emma, most likely because I wanted to be contrary and not pick P&P and because I love the snarky comments Mr John Knightley makes on just about everything. However, I must admit that the plot is not as strong as some of the others. Mainly Frank & Jane Fairfax’ engagement feels like a forced plot twist and when I am honest with myself, I must admit that Emma and Knightley only really work in film adaptations, where the two actors have enough chemistry to make the parental-figure-to-lover transition seem romantic. [Does anyone disagree? Let’s discuss this in the comments! I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise.]
Persuasion, on the other hand, is still a strong contender for first place. The story seems quite ‘tight’. Sir Walter is amazing and I adore the Musgroves. I also very much enjoy its second half, which isn’t a story of ‘two people like each other, when will circumstance throw them together?’ but it shows how Anne starts to understand Captain Wentworth and that he does still love her, but that he is possibly too hurt by her previous refusal to renew the engagement. At the same time, he goes through a decent amount of character development when he learns that being persuadable may be preferable to reckless obstinacy. Ultimately, however, it cannot match Pride and Prejudice in timelessness, its more rounded characters and writing style.
After Persuasion I listened to Sense and Sensibility, which was much better than I remembered it being. In my memory it was very slow paced and uneventful, and in a way it is, of course. But then, all the little parties at Barton Park and all the sitting around and waiting for Willoughby and Edward are really what the book is about. Women couldn’t do anything independently at that time; the only way for Elinor and Marianne to better their lives a little is to marry well, and this novel shows us the harsh reality of that. Moreover, the book does feature some iconic scenes, for example at the start of the novel, when Mrs John Dashwood manages to reduce her husband’s promise to his father to almost nothing in the most clever way. I also quite like Willoughby’s exposition at the end. Sure, he is a scoundrel, but how satisfying is it when the guy who ghosted you comes back utterly miserable to explain all of his actions?
So that leaves Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. The first I may try after listening to Emma, having read it only once or twice, but I have resolved long ago never to re-read Mansfield Park. I cannot stand Fanny Price! [Again, I am happy to hear arguments in her favour in the comments 😉]
So in sum, I do think Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s best work, closely followed by Persuasion (oh how I wish she had lived long enough to finish it entirely) and then Emma in third place. Sense and Sensibility fourth? I guess it must be then. However, I must add that all four of them are excellent books, that I would really recommend to everyone. It’s a bit like picking your favourite child, isn’t it?
Have you read any Austen novels? Which is your favourite? I’d love to hear from you!