Celebrating Jane Austen | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) leads me down a winding path.

Begin:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition. Belknap: Harvard Univ. 2010. 464p. ed. by Patricia Meyer Spacks. illus. notes. ISBN 9780674049161. $38. LIT
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death on July 18, 1817. A proper celebration of the author’s life must begin with her iconic novels. Of her six main works, her second published book, Pride and Prejudice (1813), is the best known and for good reason. The story of Elizabeth Bennet, a respectable young woman of modest means, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, an arrogant man of great wealth, who fall in love against their better judgment, highlights Austen’s vivid voice and her brilliant use of comedy and social commentary; rich characterizations; and focus on family, community, and intimate bonds. Their rocky courtship has fueled many film and TV adaptations and is the source of Austen’s most famous line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Beyond the basic plot is a smart and penetrating look at class and self-determination rendered in lavish language and engaging sensibility, accompanied here by analysis from editor Spacks.

Read-On:

Austen, Jane. Emma. Penguin. 2003. 512p. ISBN 9780141439587. pap. $9; ebk. ISBN 9780698408395. LIT
The adventures of clever, bright, and spoiled Emma Woodhouse and her many attempts at matchmaking and failures of insight provide a useful counterpoint to the experiences of Elizabeth Bennet and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot (see more below). This fourth Austen novel, released in 1815, is more complicated and less fully romantic than either of those characters’ stories and thus has more room to showcase Austen’s commentary and masterly style. At its core, of course, is a love story, this time involving the scolding George Knightley but centering mostly on Emma and her self-revelations. What Austen does so well is clearly evident here, as the story conveys penetrating concerns about class and social standing, subtle indications of character, and a deep interest in family and community relationships.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 2d ed. Norton. (Critical Edition). 2012. 352p. ed. by Patricia Meyer Spacks. ISBN 9780393911534. pap. $14.50. LIT
With Pride and Prejudice devoured, jump into this much later gem, Austen’s final novel, published posthumously in 1818. This astute character study spares no one. Illuminating the concept of family and family dynamics, it is a tale of choices that have long reverberations. A redeeming romance and very much a Cinderella story, the work begins harshly but arrives at a tender resolution. Anne Elliot is a beleaguered woman of strong virtue who must endure and assist her family, all of whom treat her badly. Long ago, Anne was persuaded to reject Capt. Frederick Wentworth as a suitor, a clever man but without wealth or prospects. When he reenters her life and society years later, he causes her much untold pain, as she sees her bloom faded and her circumstances constrained. The pair’s journey to finding their way back to each other makes for delightful reading further enlivened by memorable secondary characters, an excellent sense of place, and, for its time, a very forceful statement of female empowerment.

Read-Alikes:

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford Univ. 2008. 542p. ISBN 9780199535590. pap. $7.95; ebk. ISBN 9780191500336. LIT
English novelist Brontë (1816–55) wrote in the Victorian rather than the Georgian or Regency eras of Austen, periods that are tonally and socially very different. Yet her 1847 novel of the titular heroine, who, after a wretched childhood, grows into a woman able to stand on her own with virtue and heart, is an excellent next read for Austen fans. Young Jane is sent to a miserly school and from there enters service as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets the mysterious and Byronic Edward Rochester. Their romance, which Brontë details with keen observation and perhaps even more tactile emotional weight than Austen employs, is short-circuited when it’s revealed that Rochester is already married. Rich in social commentary—at times an outright indictment—and full of both hope and shadow, Brontë’s work proves the author an equal to Austen’s finger-on-her-times ethos.

Lipman, Elinor. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. Vintage. 2004. 304p. ISBN 9780375724596. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307429230. F
Discovering a modern author with the interests and sensibility of Austen is a difficult prospect. There are plenty of witty, romantic novels and any number of spin-offs, but Austen’s particular mix of style, characterization, psychological acuity, and subtle social critique is more illusive. Lipman fits this bill and is a strong contender for readers seeking a contemporary Austen successor. While many of Lipman’s novels (e.g., On Turpentine Lane; The Inn at Lake Devine) will be on target as an Austen read-alike, this engaging tale of the awkward Alice Thrift is an appealing choice. Working in a Boston hospital, Alice tries to navigate the politics of her position while suffering from a debilitating lack of social skills. Although a cohort of characters are there to help her out, she becomes entangled with a loathsome traveling salesman, much to everyone’s dismay.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Modern Library. 1999. 304p. ISBN 9780375753206. pap. $11; ebk. ISBN 9780679642077. LIT
Writing much later than Austen, Wharton (1862–1937) fills her work with a harder edge and much more pointed critique. Yet the two novelists share similar thematic interests, with Wharton delivering characterization, irony, style, and psychological insight as deft as Austen’s. This American classic, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is set in upper-class New York society and follows Newland Archer who looks forward to his highly suitable marriage to May Welland. Things take a sudden turn when May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, returns from Europe and disrupts all of their lives. A novel of love and duty, shifting morals and shifting ground, The Age of Innocence will please readers who prize Austen’s focus on choices, obligations, and social commentary.

Read-Arounds:

Baker, Jo. Longbourn. Knopf. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780385351232. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385351249. F
The quest to fill the “I need more Austen” void has occupied many contemporary authors, including P.D. James, Curtis Sittenfeld, Joanna Trollope, and Alexander McCall Smith. It has also produced an endless number of spin-offs and retellings, from Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Baker pays attention to Pride and Prejudice, too, but shifts the emphasis below stairs, structuring her critically acclaimed novel on the servants of the Bennet family, especially the young housemaid Sarah. A mysterious new footman brings much interest to Sarah’s world, as does a man from the Bingley household. Enriched with the realities of endless labor, Baker’s vivid reimagining of Pride and Prejudice will inspire readers with its new characters as well as the familiar aspects of Austen’s beloved tale.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. Vintage. 1999. 400p. ISBN 9780679766766. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307426468. BIOG
Austen’s life is famously difficult to pin down owing to a scarcity of autobiographical materials. Nonetheless, there are a number of notable Austen biographies available, including several new titles being released in time for this 200th anniversary, such as Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical and Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home: A Biography. Regarded as a core work in the field, Tomalin’s 1997 volume places Austen in her age and milieu and is a boon for readers who relish the Georgian/Regency periods in which her novels are set, the wide lens offering an accounting of the novelist’s personality and known history. Also consider Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things as a companion read.

Listen-Arounds:

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen: The BBC Radio Drama Collection; Six BBC Radio Full-Cast Dramatisations. 15 CDs. 15 hrs., 30 min. BBC/Recorded Bks. 2016. ISBN 9781785292699. $54.95. LIT
A highlight of this collection is the complicated and far less effervescent Mansfield Park (1814), which touches on darker themes, from slavery to abuse to adultery. While it might have been a notable achievement of Austen’s career, it is likely now one of her least read novels, a shame this audio version might correct. The full-cast production featuring Felicity Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Tennant is a bright introduction to the tale of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. When she is very young, the long-suffering Fanny is sent away to live with her rich aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. She navigates a number of difficult situations and emotions but eventually settles into a worthy life. Evoking radio programs of old, this dramatization style offers its own unique appeal.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 7 CDs. 8 hrs., 17 min. Naxos Audiobooks. 2006. ISBN 9789626344279. $31. LIT
Austen’s talent as a stylist and her humor, wit, and wonderful characterizations combine to make audio versions of her books particularly rewarding. One of the greatest narrators of her work is Juliet Stevenson, whose delightful British voice is extremely adaptable, wringing every bit of keenness and drollery out of Austen’s writings to produce a richly inflected and gleeful experience. Having read a number of Austen’s novels for Naxos, Stevenson presents a take on this most unlikely tale, a spoof on the gothic, that is a showcase of her narrative skills. Catherine Morland, the daughter of a clergyman, gets a bit too wrapped up in the atmospherics of gothic novels and falls into less than stellar company while visiting the English city of Bath. She comes right in the end, of course, marrying the noble Henry Tilney.

Watch-Arounds:

Love & Friendship. 93 min. Whit Stillman, dist. by Amazon Studios. 2016. Blu-ray UPC 043396476905. $24.99. DRAMA
End on a radically different Austen note with this funny, arch, nonromantic, very self-aware film that draws upon Austen’s Lady Susan, a lesser-known early epistolary novel published in 1871, well after the author’s death. Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan, a sly, manipulative schemer who moves those around her—including her daughter, in-laws, and friends and assorted gentlemen—like chess pieces in her great game of getting what she wants—a rich, clueless husband. This exquisite film of cunning pleasures may be a bit too glib and hard-edged to please steadfast Janeites; however, it promises to thrill those who yearn for her trademark wit and fancy costumes.

Sense and Sensibility. 136 min. Ang Lee, dist. by Columbia Pictures. 1999. DVD UPC 043396115996. $9.99. DRAMA
Some screen adaptations of Austen’s work have nearly as big a following as her novels. From the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice to the on-point modernization of Clueless, viewers avidly appreciate and rewatch their favorites. A shining example is this elegant, emotive, and beautiful film written by Emma Thompson. The story follows the fates of two sisters as they navigate different romantic entanglements guided by their strongly divergent outlooks and personalities. Elinor Dashwood (Thompson) is sensible, while Marianne (Kate Winslet) has an excess of sensibility. The contrast helps to propel forward this beautifully composed film that is notable for its emotional resonance and Thompson’s elegant, engaging script.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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