This year is the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. After 200 years of sustained popularity, it’s almost impossible to be unfamiliar with at least some aspects of Jane Austen’s novels. Despite this, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start with Jane Austen. Let’s take a look at a few options.
Who is Jane Austen
Always relevant, but also very much of her time, Jane Austen (1775-1817) is considered one of the best English novelists. She is mostly known for her six published novels, which satirise the lives of the landed gentry and emerging middle class of the later 18th Century. Jane Austen mastered the emerging novel form to create a style which combines biting irony with realism and social commentary. The brilliance of her writing lies in her ability to capture the everyday idiosyncrasies of humanity that are still relevant today. Her themes resonate as well with modern readers as they did with her contemporaries, precisely because she focused on the minutiae of the ordinary, rather than the ‘great’ details of her day.
Despite her enduring popularity, little biographical information remains about the author herself. Besides the basic details, birth, address, death, we know precious little about Jane herself. What we do know about her private life is diluted down to around 160 letters, mostly written to her sister Cassandra. These letters paint a picture of a quiet life in the country which sometimes seem at odds with the caustic style of her writing. However, Cassandra destroyed the majority of Jane’s letters, leaving the implication that there was much more to Jane than her posthumous reputation suggests. Successive generations of her family further compounded this by continuing to sanitise the reputation of ‘good, quiet Aunt Jane.’
Where to Start with Jane Austen
Lack of biographical information aside, what Jane Austen did leave behind was a treasure trove of literary genius. She has legions of fans, her novels have been adapted into award-winning films and tv dramas and most of us are least familiar with her most famous quotes. She even features on a five-pound note! All of which leads us to our big question, where to start with Jane Austen? There are many ways to approach this question, and considering the fact that it’s almost impossible to have no prior knowledge of the great author you have a few options before you.
Chronological Order of Publication
Jane Austen published four novels in her lifetime and two shortly after her death. These six novels are generally considered to make up the main body of Jane Austen’s work. Many readers enjoy reading the novels of an author in the order they were published in. And so, the simplest answer to where to start with Jane Austen is to read her novels in this way:
- Sense and Sensibility (1811)
- Pride and Prejudice (1813)
- Mansfield Park (1814)
- Emma (1815)
- Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous)
- Persuasion (1818, posthumous)
Approaching the novels in this order will give you an excellent structure for working through the works of Jane Austen. Especially if you’re a new reader. It has the additional benefit of allowing you to read two of her most popular novels first. This will give you a good idea of Jane’s style and whether or not you like it.
Like many authors, Jane Austen did not become an overnight sensation with the first book she wrote. Instead, she wrote for many years before she ever saw her work in print. This long road to publication changes the order of her novels somewhat. This is important when considering the literary development of Jane Austen. If this is important to you then it is something to consider when thinking about where to start with Jane Austen. It can be interesting to track the development in her style and reading the novels in written order allows you to do so more easily.
Let’s take a look at the difference:
- Northanger Abbey (written circa 1798-99)
- Sense and Sensibility (written circa 1797)
- Pride and Prejudice (written in the late 1790s as First Impressions, re-written 1811-12)
- Mansfield Park (1811-13)
- Emma (1814-15)
- Persuasion (1815-16)
The most notable difference here is Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously. When read in publication order, Northanger Abbey seems at odds with the sophistication of Emma and Persuasion. However, this makes sense when you consider that it was, in fact, one of Jane Austen’s first completed novels, written around seventeen years previously.
Again, one thing to note about Sense and Sensibility is that when it was written Sensibility was at the height of its popularity. However, by the time of publication it had seriously fallen out of fashion. This is crucial to the interpretation of the novel. Critics have argued for decades about whether Jane Austen lampoons sensibility or is sympathetic to it. Taking the dates into consideration makes either argument valid. However, each interpretation vastly changes the way you see the novel and its two heroines Elinor and Marianne.
Another thing to consider when looking at where to start with Jane Austen is that the main canon of her work is not exhaustive. She left many fragments and unfished works behind. As well as novellas and short stories. The next step for many fans of Jane Austen is to tackle these ‘extras’. after they finish reading the ‘Big Six’ novels:
- Lady Susan or Love and Freindship (sic)
- Sanditon (unfinished)
- The Watsons
- Sir Charles Grandison (adapted play)
- Other Juvenalia
- The Letters
As you can see, the extras that Jane Austen left behind were either unfinished or not intended for publication. It is important to consider this when reading the extras. I would recommend viewing them as entirely separate from the ‘Big Six’ Jane Austen novels we have considered previously. They do, however, give more insight into the development of Jane Austen’s writing, if this is something you’re interested in.
Whichever way you approach it, there is no wrong answer for where to start with Jane Austen. Her novels deserve to be enjoyed and the aim of this blog post was simply to suggest a few ways you can do so.