Rereading Austen

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A Note from the Editor: Today marks the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death. As we here at the Attic are a proud bunch of Janeites, we decided that we’d mark the week* with a trio of Austen posts to show what she means to us. To begin, I’m sharing a short piece I wrote for my university magazine back in 2013 on discovering humor in Austen. On Thursday, Abigail will share a piece on contemporary rewritings of Pride and Prejudice that she presented at a conference last spring, and on Saturday, Rory will reveal a creative piece inspired by Austen!   * celebrate doesn’t quite seem the word to use considering Austen’s early death


Rereading Austen

Jane Austen here, Jane Austen there... You’ve probably all noticed by this point that 2013 seems to be the year of all things Austen. There are new films, books, and articles coming out of every nook and cranny, from the silly to the serious, with everyone from the New Yorker to the Bank of England taking part. Officially, this is all because it’s Pride and Prejudice’s bicentennial and Pride and Prejudice is incontestably Austen’s most famous work. Unofficially, though? Anyone who loves Austen will simply jump at any occasion to celebrate her work.

To play my passive part in the celebrations, I decided against mock Regency balls and Austen theme parks and decided, instead, to do the “rational” thing and reread each and every one of Austen’s novels throughout the year. It doesn’t sound like a daunting feat, but with mandatory readings and theoretical texts piling towards the ceiling and a stack of lovingly chosen yet never-read classics that will no longer even fit on a shelf, it’s easier said than done. Still, I’ve made my way through all but one, revisiting even Sanditon along the way. With so many new books to discover, I wondered, at first, whether re-reading these old favorites was a frivolous thing to do, but as I’ve often noted before, and yet can’t seem to remember, rereading favorites is almost always good.

The first time I discovered Austen, I was eight years old and enthralled with an ITV adaptation of Emma. I’d outgrown fairy tales at that point and had turned instead to the worlds of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Yet, here was this story, steeped in a historical society, where ladies wore lovely, long dresses and everyone spoke beautifully. I fell then for the supposedly superficial side of Austen, the funny side Austen-haters dismiss and non-readers love to mock. It was with that enchantment that I watched all of the adaptations and then, some two years later, slowly began to read all of her books. At ten, eleven, twelve years old, I read for the social customs I wished we still had, for the charming characters I wanted to befriend, and for the celebrated stories themselves.

It was with later rereadings of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey in my teens that I began to discover the other, richer aspects of Austen. I’d always known that Northanger Abbey was a parody, and that characters like Mrs. Bennet were to be laughed at, but I’d missed out on the finer details. What was the gothic novel she mocked? Who were the social types she criticized? The irony, the delightful turns of phrase, the morals, and the sheer extent of the social commentary... all stood out as they had failed to do before.

This time however, in addition to noticing just how different each and every one of her novels is from all the others in style and purpose, I was struck by just how hilarious Austen can be. After one or two reads, some of the socially criticized characters stop being annoying and become quite funny. Isabella Thorpe, for instance, holds on to her obnoxious bonnet but you can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous she is, going from melodramatically writing about how she absolutely must have the fiancé she recently dumped back as he’s “the only man [she] ever did or could love” to criticizing the new spring fashions in two adjoining sentences. Mrs. Bennet and her poor nerves, meanwhile, can now be summed up not only by her preoccupation with marrying off her daughters at any cost, which technically can be historically justified, but by the way she spends an entire evening essentially having a “Yes!” “No!” argument with a child:

‘If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy,’ cried a young Lucas, who came with his sisters, ‘I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine a day.'

'Then you would drink a great deal more than you ought,’ said Mrs. Bennet; ‘and if I were to see you at it, I should take away your bottle directly.’

The boy protested that she should not; she continued to declare that she would, and the argument ended only with the visit.

Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse, however, takes the cake away from them all (pun fully intended.) He’s a lovably persnickety old man who hates going beyond his shrubbery and fears “thoughtless people” who do reprehensible things like open windows and eat cake. The novel’s full of his antics and wholehearted but ridiculous recommendations that render him one of Austen’s most memorable secondary characters.

Yet, this isn’t to say that the funny bits are limited to funny characters. Who can forget that moment in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennet jokes that she discovers that she is in love with Mr. Darcy upon “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”? Jane Austen is by no means a comedian, but the unexpected nature of these quips, interspersed throughout her novels, make them that much more of a delight to discover.

And that is precisely what rereading Austen has proved to be: a delight. Every reread brings with it new discoveries: overlooked turns of phrase, veiled critiques, and if you’re lucky, new inside jokes. I, for one, don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a cake without thinking of Mr. Woodhouse quietly muttering at the shame of it all.