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Celebrating 200 Years of Jane Austen

Sarah Biggerstaff

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

that the writings of Jane Austen have left an indelible mark on the face of literature, constituting some of the greatest and best-loved works of fiction in the English language. Never has this truth been more important than now, 200 years after the death of this wonderful author.

Ok, the last part may not be entirely true, but as 2017 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, what better time is there to either revisit her work if you are a fan already, or experience her riveting prose for the first time?

Austen’s key charm, as far as I am concerned is her wit. This is the lady who dropped such pearls of wisdom as ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’ and ‘I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible’.

Austen’s social commentary is as sharp and engaging now as if it had just been written, showing the universality of her work, and the modernity of her authorial voice. Her books have spawned literally hundreds of film adaptations, spin offs, sequels, and alternative renderings, like the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Her continued popularity is evidenced by the fact that her work is still being translated to the big screen, with Love and Friendship – based largely on her epistolary work, Lady Susan – coming out only last year.

For those of you who are new to Austen I have outlined each of her books – tragically there are only six – below:

Pride and Prejudice

The most famous of Austen’s’ novels, and I think, the most frequently adapted, P & P follows the romantic struggles of the Bennet sisters, led by the clever Elizabeth. Most people know the story, having seen either the BBC miniseries, or the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley, both of which are great in different ways. I never get bored of this story, with its excellent social caricatures and witticisms, even the smallest of characters is a study in social absurdity and a delight to read. Arguably the best of Austen’s novels.

Emma

P &P may be the best, but Emma is my favourite, probably because the heroine is so wonderfully flawed, and, consequently, relatable. She always thinks she knows best, and while the love plot is important and utterly charming in this novel, Emma’s journey towards self-knowledge is the best part of it.

If you don’t have time to read it, the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow is really lovely, and quite on point as an adaptation, while sadly, the Kate Beckinsale version from the same year is not as good despite its stellar cast. Hands down, the best adaptation however, is the miniseries starring Romola Garai from 2009.

Sense and Sensibility

This one has a truly tortuous love plot, filled with romantic obstacles and near misses. It chronicles the calamitous love lives of the Dashwood sisters, newly reduced to near-poverty by a greedy step-brother, and looking for love on a budget. They are two very different women, but each utterly passionate in their own ways. It’s a bit of a nail-biter, and definitely worth the read.

If you’re looking for a good film version, I definitely recommend the 2008 series over the 1995 film. It includes more of the minor characters, and many of the more important scenes. Have fun deciding if you are more of an Elinor or a Marianne.

Mansfield Park

Honestly, this is my least favourite Austen. Everyone has one, and this is mine. There is nothing wrong with the book, but the heroine, Fanny Price is just – this may sound bad – too good. She always does the right thing, puts other first, and is generally a doormat. But she is rewarded in the end, so I guess it pays off, though I’m not sure what message this novel is trying to send about women’s conduct. It lacks the sass of the other novels, but does have some very interesting characters – you will love to hate Mary Crawford, for instance.

The film starring Frances O’Connor is a good film, but a questionable adaptation, as it takes too many liberties with its characterisation. The 2007 version with Billie Piper is truer to the book, so may be a good place to start, especially as it stars Hayley Atwell as Mary.

Northanger Abbey

A brilliant comic satire on the gothic novel which was sweeping fiction at the time, this is a great coming of age story, full of the agonies of growing up and first love. Catherine Morland is a charmingly naïve heroine, and watching her pick her way across the many pitfalls of adolescence is a real treat. I get more out of this novel every time I read it, as Austen includes the tiniest nuggets of humour and irony you may miss with the first reading.

The miniseries starring Felicity Jones is great, and fully embraces the humour of the book, so it’s worth watching if you aren’t quite ready to commit to the book.

Persuasion

I love Persuasion, it is in many ways the essence of what Austen’s writing is about: love, self-knowledge, and the navigation of difficult social waters as a woman. The heroine, Anne Elliot, has had and lost a great love, and at the ripe old age of twenty-seven (*gasp* spinster!) is ready for life on the shelf. Suddenly, her true love comes back into her life and her world is thrown into chaos, as she watches him enjoy the life of a handsome, eligible bachelor (because, of course, he is not too old for married, being a man).

Persuasion is a really moving novel, asking ‘is there such a thing as a second shot at first love?’ The series with Sally Hawkins is perfection, as she completely captures the anguish of unfulfilled dreams, and the burning desire we all feel to experience that one perfect love.

To sum up, I cannot say exactly when I first fell in love with Austen, but to quote the great lady herself ‘I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun’. Happy reading!

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Sarah Biggerstaff

Sarah Biggerstaff is a literary enthusiast, from Canberra, with a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She is currently in her first year of an English PhD, the focus of which is British women’s fiction from the inter-war period, with a particular interest in feminist readings of these novels. Sarah hopes to one day write books, as well as review them, and in the meantime, is happy sharing her passion for books with others.

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  • Maddie

    Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel of all time, and every time I read it I find something new that I love. Persuasion is not far behind; it gives me goosebumps!

    I think because of all the drama, wit and characterisation of those two novels, Fanny Price is such a let down. I usually pretend that Mansfield Park didn’t happen.

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