I read part of Pride and Prejudice in high school and it did nothing for me. I watched the BBC mini-series in my British Literature class and I thought, Okay, dancing, letter writing, guy bathing… entertaining enough, but not worth examining outside of class. Years later, during my last year of college, I finally decided to stop pretending to be an intellectual and pick up Pride and Prejudice again to give it a thorough read.
I was immediately hot with Austen fever, a few years behind my girlfriends who had been romancing the classic for years. While I was getting ready to say goodbye to the safely coddled idealism of college and figure out what to do with my life, Austen was there to take me to a soft place where everyone gets a happy ending and has little footing in the real world. Everyone is nice in Jane Austen, even the bad guys won’t do much worse than break the heart of someone’s sister- and not to worry, there’s a Colonel Brandon to mend said broken heart.
After reading Austen’s most famous work, I picked my way through her books during my twenties. Mansfield Park was there post-undergrad as I floundered to figure out my life, working as a freelancer and applying to M.F.A. programs. During graduate school I read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which cushioned a small bit of the intensity that came with the film program I had entered. After receiving my Master’s and finally starting a real job, I had Sense and Sensibility to come home to. Austen’s only remaining completed novel was Emma from there. I had seen almost all of the film adaptations of Emma and new the story pretty well, so I tucked the experience of reading the book away for a rainy day. I guess I foresaw a time when I might need that soft, cushy security blanket of an Austen novel.
About a month ago, not feeling the need to be coddled from reality, but wanting something light and happy to read, I decided it was time to read Emma. To be honest, reading Austen now, as I enter my thirties, is not really the same. Jane Austen was for my twenties. That’s when I needed her and that’s when I was sentimental enough to believe in her. The sad truth is that I’ve grown out of her books a little bit. I still enjoyed Emma, but I found myself a bit bored at times, rolling my eyes as she fretted over match-making and social niceties, while living a closed-off, elite lifestyle with the security of her father’s fortune to fall back on. The other side is that I put the book up on a pedestal for too long. Maybe I expected too much from Emma.
In truth, no Austen experience can be compared to reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time. Elizabeth Bennett was the heroine of my dreams- intelligent, witty, independent. I still feel that way about her and turn to her when I need female inspiration. Strangely, my second favorite Austen protagonist is Fanny Price. While Fanny is a bit meek, she’s not annoying- which cannot be said for all of Austen’s heroines- and she’s smart and kind. Also, I think I read Mansfield Park when I needed it most as I tumbled out of college life.
While I don’t think my Austen days are done, I’m just looking for something different in my reading selection now, more of a challenge. Who’s to say? Maybe in five years I’ll go on an all-out Austen bender and consume her witty, youthful novels again.
Who’s your favorite Jane Austen character? Leave a comment!