I’ve read five Jane Austen-themed books this year, from memoir to mystery and beyond. What can I say? It was that kind of year.
When I found Why Jane Austen? in a list of Austen-related books, I thought it might be an anthology of appreciation by Austen fans. (That book does exist, but I haven’t read it yet: A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.) However, author Rachel M. Brownstein is a literary scholar, and Why Jane Austen? is anything but lightweight gushing. I had to borrow it through university interlibrary loan; my local library system came up short.
Though I don’t read much literary criticism—my days as an English major are a distant blip in the rearview mirror—I thoroughly enjoyed these essays. Brownstein tackles the subject of “why Jane Austen” in diverse ways: why Austen wrote the way she did; why her novels became and remain so beloved; why, beginning in the 1990s, there has been an ongoing obsession (“Jane-o-mania”) with retelling her novels (on the screen, in pastiche, in fan fiction) and with her biography. Brownstein sums up her view:
Contrary to the main current of popular opinion today, Jane Austen’s novels are not first of all and most importantly about pretty girls in long dresses waiting for love and marriage; and they are not most importantly English and Heritage, small and decorous and mannerly and pleasant. Read with any degree of attention, they do not work well as escape reading: there are too many hardheaded observations and hard, recalcitrant details in them.
Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House is the sixth of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries, a far cry from Brownstein’s literary criticism but a delightful concept for Austen fans. There are some terrific books in this series—and I have many more to look forward to—but Wool House wasn’t a standout for me: too much British navy, too much hearsay evidence, and a tiresome lady-in-distress character.
I’d forgotten that I’d read The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow, until I scanned my Goodreads list for the year. I had high hopes, when I read about this book, because I’d always wondered what might have happened to bookish, pedantic Mary, the middle sister from Pride and Prejudice. But I skipped through the novel; turns out, a more sympathetic rendering of Mary’s backstory and subsequent adventures was not for me. (To be fair, many Goodreads members rated it highly. As Ranganathan’s “third law of library science” states: “every book its reader.”)
I also read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, who discovered the wisdom still to be gained from reading Austen’s novels. Inspired by Deresiewicz’s memoir, I decided that, instead of circling around Austen, I should re-read Austen herself. But I didn’t; that’s a reading goal for 2021.
The pleasure of re-reading Austen is at the heart of The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. Set in England after World War II, it’s a novel about the founding of a fictional Jane Austen Society, with charming plot twists of friendship, love, and redemption gained via devotion to the author’s legacy. Jenner created a set of fictional characters who accomplish the same thing as the historical JSA founders did: the preservation of Chawton cottage, Austen’s last home. I love historical fiction, but Jenner’s artistic decision to sidestep the actual, so she could create her own characters and plot lines, kept nagging at me.
Looking ahead to 2021, I have Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, at the top of my reading list. More Austen-inspired books are on my list, too—whenever I need a supplemental dose of fandom:
• A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen – Susannah Carson, editor
• What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved – John Mullan
• Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan – Ted Sheinman
• Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom – Deborah Yaffe
A shout-out to the Jane Austen in Vermont blog, which I discovered while looking for more Austen-inspired books.