A couple of summers ago I decided I wanted to read Pride and Prejudice. I read about two chapters and then gave up. It was good, and funnier than I expected, but something wasn’t clicking for me. Cut to last winter when I decided I was going to knit everybody’s Christmas presents. The thing about knitting is that it’s really boring if you’re not doing something else, so audiobooks seemed like a good solution. This was my chance to try Pride and Prejudice again! I could be productive AND read some classic literature AND not actually have to read the classic literature! Lo and behold, Pride and Prejudice is a really great story. I liked it so much that I breezed through the audiobooks of Jane Austen’s five other novels too. If you’re on the fence about reading the works of Ms. Austen or you’re not sure where to start, I’ve written up some mini reviews for you.
Pride and Prejudice
The Heroine: Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet
The Love Interest: Mr. Darcy
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: Mrs. Bennett (and Mr. Collins, and Ms. Bingley)
Alternative Title: Terrible First Impressions
If you’re gearing up to tackle some Jane Austen, I’d definitely start with Pride and Prejudice. It has the best laid plot, the most realistic character development, and it’s easily the funniest. I totally understand why this is the Austen novel everyone always talks about.
Because of some weird gender-based inheritance law, Mr. Bennet’s five daughters aren’t guaranteed money or a place to live unless they marry rich. This worries Mrs. Bennet a lot, so when a wealthy, handsome young fellow by the name of Bingley moves in next door, Mrs. Bennet pounces. Bingley actually really likes Lizzy’s older sister Jane, so that’s nice, except that Bingley’s cranky, snobby friend Darcy follows him everywhere he goes. Darcy has a thing for Lizzy, but she’s having none of it because he pretty much insulted her and her family at a ball, in front of everyone they know. This is how things start, but the story progresses through a series of ridiculous marriage proposals, miscommunications, assumptions, manipulations, terrible decisions, and pride. And prejudice. Lizzy is bright, funny, and an individual spirit. She’s a joy to read about, flaws and all, and you really root for her all the way through.
The Heroine: Emma Woodhouse
The Love Interest: Frank Churchill
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: Mrs. Elton
Alternative Title: Well-Intentioned Snobbery
This is the Austen novel I probably like the least, but it was still enjoyable. Most of the characters in this one think a little too highly of themselves for my taste, but that’s where a lot of the humor and drama are born.
Emma is the pride and joy of her village, and she knows it. She uses her social influence to play matchmaker for everyone she knows. It’s kind of her hobby. She doesn’t want to get involved herself, though. Who would look after her doting, hypochondriac father if she went off and got married? Emma meets this girl named Harriet Smith, who is a couple of steps down from Emma as far as socioeconomic class is concerned, but Emma sees potential in her, so she decides to “raise her up” to high society. Harriet, though, keeps falling for guys Emma deems inappropriate, throwing off all of her matchmaking schemes.
Meanwhile, this guy Frank Churchill shows up. He’s very charming and all that, so he and Emma strike up a flirting-based almost-dating relationship. Everyone thinks it’s all wonderful, except for Mr. Knightly, a close friend of the Woodhouse family and the only person who ever calls Emma out on her behavior. He would like everyone’s egos to be knocked down a peg or two. Something is fishy about Frank Churchill too. He keeps disappearing or getting angry for no good reason.
This story rolls along nicely, with a colorful cast of characters, a few mysteries, and a lot of humor. It’s a fun ride to see Emma develop as a character along the way.
The Heroine: Anne Elliot
The Love Interest: Captain Wentworth
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: Anne’s sister Mary
Alternative Title: Don’t Let Old Family Friends Make Your Life Decisions for You
The tone of this novel is a little different from the others. Our protagonist, Anne, is in her late twenties, and a little more mature than Austen’s other young ladies.
She’s also somewhat less lively, as her life has taken a kind of unhappy direction. Her father and sisters don’t particularly like her all that much, and she feels like she has missed out on love since she broke off her engagement with Frederick Wentworth several years ago. Her snobby family thought he was too poor for the likes of Anne, and Lady Russell, a friend of the family and the only person who truly values and respects Anne, thought likewise and talked Anne out of the marriage. Through a bizarre turn of events involving a new social circle, Wentworth is suddenly back in Anne’s life, but now he’s a wealthy captain. The main drama of the novel comes from watching the two of them navigate their tricky and uncomfortable situation.
Again, Anne makes a nice change of pace from Austen’s more exuberant heroines. Despite being older than the others, you get to see her grow up as the novel progresses.
The Heroine: Fanny Price
The Love Interest: Edmund Bertram
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: Mrs. Norris
Alternative Title: Social Anxiety and Amateur Theatre
I’m not sure why I like this story as much as I do. Not much happens plot wise and almost no one is likable, yet it manages to stir up hope that brighter days will come to those who deserve them.
Sir Thomas Bertram convinces himself that it is a good idea to foster one of his many nieces and nephews at his estate, so Fanny comes to live at Mansfield Park as a child. She grows up in an environment that is a strange mixture of belittlement and appreciation (but mostly the former). Fanny has been dragged away from her parents and her many siblings, and while Sir Thomas loves his niece in his own way and Lady Bertram is quite fond of her in a kind of careless fashion, the rest of the family constantly reminds Fanny that she was taken in as a charity case and should know her place. Fanny’s cousins Julia and Maria are self-centered and pretentious, and Mrs. Norris is particularly nasty to her niece. As a result, Fanny turns out shy and easily frightened, afraid of missteps and unsure of herself. Her cousin Edmund is the only person to truly respect her, seeking her counsel and advice often. Fanny winds up totally in love with Edmund, which isn’t particularly healthy (not the fact that they’re cousins, that was fine during the time period the story takes place so you just have to roll with it), but Fanny’s existence is so miserable that you root for them to get together just so she can have something good in her life.
This story features a lot of flirtatious shenanigans, young people making bad decisions, an undervalued young woman slowly but surely making peace with herself, and the production of play in the sitting room that takes up, like, ten chapters.
The Heroine: Catherine Morland
The Love Interest: Henry Tilney
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: John Thorpe
Alternative Title: Novels Are Really Great!
I liked this one a lot! The emphasis is less on Catherine’s marriage prospects and more on her infatuation with gothic novels. Novels were considered frivolous at the time Northanger Abbey was published, so it reads as a kind of ode to novels everywhere.
Catherine is spending her summer in Bath with some family friends. Bath is a happening place, but she’s lonely because she doesn’t really know anybody. She meets Isabella Thrope, and through desperation for company, they become friends. Unfortunately, Catherine then has to put up with Isabella’s gross brother John, who thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity and who has his eye on Catherine. (He also claims to hate novels, yet seems to know an awful lot about many popular ones.) When that all becomes too much for her, Catherine avoids the Thorpes by hanging out with Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Henry and Catherine have a thing going on, so she is invited to come stay with the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey, the family estate. Catherine is psyched because it’s an actual real old abbey, where creepy stuff probably happened. Catherine gets up to all sorts of escapades at the Abbey, where she let’s her gothic novel-fueled imagination carry her away.
This is probably the most lighthearted of Ms. Austen’s six novels. Catherine is a lot of fun, and so is Henry Tilney. Darcy gets all the attention when it comes to Austen dudes, but Henry is my favorite. He’s just a nice guy with a good sense of humor who likes novels and conversation.
Sense and Sensibility
The Heroine: Elinor Dashwood
The Love Interest: Willoughby (but he’s not actually Elinor’s love interest)
The Character You Wish Would Just Shut Up: most of the adults
Alternative Title: Calm Down, Marianne!
This novel is basically a comparison between two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor is pragmatic and clear-headed (“sense”), while Marianne is idealistic and romantic (“sensibility”).
Some inheritance issue gets the Dashwood family kicked out of their house, so they go to live at Barton Park. There, Marianne meets Willoughby, who everybody loves, and they hit it off immediately and start dating in such an obvious and affectionate manner that it’s kind of hard to watch. Before they officially get engaged, though, Willoughby disappears to take care of some mysterious issue without explaining a thing. The emotional blow and Marianne’s extreme sensibility cause her to have a breakdown. Her mother and Elinor manage to help her feel better, but just as she starts healing they run into Willoughby in London, and he virtually ignores her! What? Only when Marianne falls deathly ill does Willoughby come clean about his dastardly past.
Sense and Sensibility is a bit of an emotional roller coaster, but with some of objectivity thrown in, since it’s Elinor’s thoughts and feelings we get the most insight into. At the end of the day, it’s a story about not throwing yourself into a situation haphazardly, as well as the benefits of adopting some of the traits of those we are close to.
If I’ve swayed you into wanting to give one of these stories a try, you can listen to the audiobooks like I did, legally and for free, at www.libravox.org. Find a recording by Karen Savage if you can. She gives the best performance.