Jane Austen reading literature novel

Don’t Read Austen Once

Exactly one year from today marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Expect to see commemorations, biographies, and news articles in recognition of the occasion, as happened with the two-hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth this year. Just don’t wait until next year to dust off your copy of Pride and Prejudice! If you really want to appreciate her legacy, read one (or more!) of her novels several times between now and next year.

Jane Austen improves on rereading more than any other author I know. It might seem absurd to reread works described by their own author as “two inches wide” of ivory. Austen herself shrugged off her plots as always consisting of “3 or 4 families in a Country Village” What more is there to see? It doesn’t take a lot to take in “two inches wide” of ivory. As literary critic W. Somerset Maugham put it, “nothing very much happens” on any given page of Jane Austen. People talk and go to parties, but the books lack elaborate description or even a sense of the physical world beyond speech.

Still, as Maugham continues, “when you reach the bottom of a page you eagerly turn it in order to know what will happen next.” Austen herself provides the clue as to why: She compares her novels to ivory because her work is delicate. She writes with “so fine a brush.” You could assess her two bits of ivory with a glance, and think you have encountered it, when you’ve just scraped the surface.

Master of the Sentence

When I was in high school, I read Pride and Prejudice nearly thirty times. It wasn’t the plots that drew me, but the clarity and beauty of her carefully constructed sentences. Encountering her use of language is like beholding fine china. Maugham explains that while Austen’s “spelling was peculiar and her grammar often shaky … she had a good ear.”

I consider Austen the master of the sentence. Clearly, she loved arranging words into harmonious wholes. One paragraph glides gracefully into the next. Despite their length, the sentences are often deceptively simple and declarative. As they go on and on, one clause delicately balances against the next. Sense and Sensibility, for instance, begins with a simple description:

The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable as a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance.”

The reader learns from these two sentences that the Dashwoods have lived in Sussex for a large time, that they have a large estate named Norland Park, and that the surrounding neighbors like them.

Anyone, it seems, could write a rather dull opening like this. For Austen, though, it’s not what she says but how she says it. For instance, she places the prepositional phrases so that they do not interfere with the flow of the sentence, including placing “in the centre of their property” near the center of the sentence. Think also of the famous opening to Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Again, the idea is simple: Everyone thinks that rich men should get married. Austen’s achievement is phrasing it in a memorable way.

Readers of Austen shouldn’t brush past her use of language. They shouldn’t say to themselves, “Okay, the Dashwoods live in Sussex. Moving on…” We should contemplate her often straightforward use of language and consider it at length. If we reread, we will move from dismissing Austen’s prose as nothing special to considering it a work of art.

On Second Thought

In addition to the beautiful sequences of Austen’s sentences, the re-reader begins to notice the multi-layered complexity of her stories. Beneath the plain recital of facts, Austen includes undercurrents of irony that first-time readers may fail to discern while preoccupied with getting to know the characters and the plot. Everyone knows Austen is master of irony, but it’s hard to experience her irony for yourself if you only pick up Mansfield Park once.

I took a class on Austen and the Brontë sisters during my last semester of college, and we spent some time analyzing the passage in Pride and Prejudice (spoiler alert!) where Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins’s proposal of marriage. At first, it seems that the narrator is critiquing Charlotte: “[She] accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment.” Charlotte appears nakedly self-interested, and that indeed is Elizabeth’s point of view about the situation.

Then, a few paragraphs later, comes the telling line that marriage will be Charlotte’s “pleasantest preservative from want.” Elizabeth perceives that Charlotte is focusing upon material comfort, while Charlotte may actually be concerned that her family lacks the resources to support her adequately. After her parents’ death, societal norms of the time would dictate that her brothers would have to support her. Charlotte marries Collins because she does not want to burden to her family. This passage, then, may subtly critique Elizabeth’s quick judgments. Consulting only what she would do in a similar circumstance, Elizabeth swiftly condemns Charlotte’s decisions. The narrator doesn’t firmly take a side, but shows that there are multiple valid ways of assessing the situation.

Austen loves to mean two things at once. She litters her stories with sly jokes, addresses to the reader, and glimpses into the thoughts of secondary characters. The multiple levels of meaning and shifting perspective both reflect the challenge of properly discerning truth. Is the reality of a circumstance what is plainly before our eyes, or is something more going on? Should a person rely on his own judgment, or try to look at something from another’s point of view?

Making Ends Meet

Austen offers readers not just literary enjoyment but practicality. As a recent graduate of a liberal arts college, I have been pondering for years how to balance the true principle of “learning for its own sake” with the equally true principle of knowledge existing for good and useful ends.

Austen answers the question of how to live by balancing extremes. First, she depicts both positive and negative characters. In her silly, annoying, yet engaging minor characters, we recognize ourselves. We cringe, but we perceive reality and ourselves better. We benefit from these cautionary examples, because there is always a temptation to act a little bit like Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins.

Meanwhile, the major characters that learn and change demonstrate how to cultivate virtue. Elizabeth Bennet’s famous statement in Pride and Prejudice—“Till this moment I never knew myself”—encapsulates a recurring message in Austen’s works. In every novel, Austen instructs readers to confront wrongdoing and inaccurate assumptions by cultivating the proper kind of self-knowledge.

Austen also balances reason and emotion in her emphasis on morality. The heroines feel strong and deep affection for their siblings, friends, and, of course, the hero, but they learn to base their attachments upon a sturdy foundation of rational examination. Austen does not privilege either feeling or rationality. She knows that both are central to human beings, and that harmonizing them is a difficult but possible undertaking. Instead of idealizing life, she portrays a realism both true and hopeful.

The Final Word

I’m not alone in thinking that Austen merits rereading. Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister of England, read Pride and Prejudice seventeen times, according to Maugham. We must respectfully disagree with Austen’s attempt at modesty, that her fine work on the bits of ivory “produces little effect after much labour.” Just as ivory carvings require incredible craftsmanship and delicacy despite their size, Austen crafted her provincial novels with painstaking attention to detail. They deserve our close examination.

Rebekah Slonim

Author: Rebekah Slonim

Rebekah Slonim (née Basinger) graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in English literature. For school and for leisure, she enjoys reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost, analyzing the novels of Jane Austen, and studying Aquinas and Reformed theology. She now works as a freelance editor. One of her favorite hobbies is listening to her beloved husband—who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics—talk about subjects she does not understand, such as real analysis and topology.

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