Reading Austen: Guest blog by Meredith Esparza

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Meredith Esparza who shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for her.

Finding Jane Austen During My Awkward Stage

You’ve heard that everyone goes through an “awkward stage,” right?  That awkward time of life, between the ages of eleven and fifteen where teens experience growth spurts, braces, and acne?  But the term doesn’t just apply to a teenager’s physical appearance, does it?  It can also apply to their social and behavioral development, as well.  During the “awkward years,” teens not only mature into their adult bodies, but they mature into their adult mindsets and personalities, too.  Some teens do it gracefully, while others, like me, experience some awkwardness…

When was my awkward stage?  It started when I entered middle school and lasted until about sophomore year in high school. (Kind of long, I know!)  These years were awkward for me because, unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t in a hurry to grow up.  I wasn’t into boy-bands, make-up, or cellphones.  I was still content with being a little girl, playing with my American Girl dolls and watching Disney movies.  I knew it was time to mature and leave my childhood interests behind, but I just didn’t know where to go next.

I didn’t find the answer until the summer of my sophomore year of high school when I borrowed the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from my local library.  Up until that time, I felt isolated, socially awkward, and unsure of the person I wanted to become.  But after seeing my first Austen adaptation and subsequently reading all of Jane Austen’s novels, I saw with perfectly clarity the type of person I wanted to become: an Austen heroine.

I didn’t necessarily want to dress like these heroines and live their lives, (although, that would in no way be disagreeable to me!) I wanted to possess their strength of character, their moral compasses, and their sense of self-worth.  What better guides could a young girl ask for than Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, and Elizabeth Bennet?  Who better to learn life’s lessons from than a writer who perfectly illustrates the flaws in human nature while gently imparting instruction in each novel?

After discovering the world of Jane Austen it no longer mattered to me that I didn’t have a boyfriend, or that I wasn’t friends with the popular crowd at school.  I didn’t feel the desire or need to fit into that world any more.  I found a whole new world that I’d much rather be a part of – one without AOL chat rooms, MTV, and peer pressure – a world that manifested itself in my life and gave me the feeling that I belonged.

From that point on, Jane Austen became a part of my everyday life.  With movie adaptations, Austenesque novels, and fantastic Austen blogs to follow, I found a niche for myself and grew out of my awkward stage.  And what’s even more wonderful, is that I discovered a community of the people that feel the same ways I do.  A community of readers and authors that love witnessing Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love over and over again, that secretly wish Anne Elliot could be their best friend, and that live by the motto “All Jane Austen, All the Time!”  What could be more perfect?!?

Looking back, I feel that Jane Austen entered my life at the perfect moment, not too soon and not too late.  She found me during my awkward stage, helped me survive my adolescence, and taught me how to be an Austen heroine.  She is more than just a writer, interest, or hobby, she is a part of my life, and I don’t think that will ever change.

At what point did Jane Austen enter your life?

Author Bio:

Meredith Esparza is a music teacher living off the coast of North Carolina with her very own Mr. Darcy.  She is a long-time admirer of Jane Austen and an avid reader.  Her blog, Austenesque Reviews is devoted to the reading and reviewing of numerous Jane Austen sequels, fan-fiction, and para-literature.  Currently she is hard at work planning her annual blog event, Austenseque Extravaganza, a month-long celebration of Austenesque novels and authors, which will be in September of 2012.  She hopes to see you there!  Visit Meredith at her blog Austenesque Reviews, follow her on Twitter as @austenesque and on Facebook as Austenesque Reviews.

Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, which will be published on the first Friday of every month.

© 2007 – 2012 Meredith Esparza, Austenprose

Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Emma Mincks

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Emma Mincks, who shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why she is passionate about defending her.

My love affair with Jane Austen’s storytelling began early. I watched the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation of Emma in eighth grade. At the time, the melodrama and internal conflict that Emma experiences during her discovery of love for Mr. Knightley resonated perfectly with my teenage angst and misunderstandings of love. It also didn’t hurt that the musical score was beautiful, that Emma was a painter (so was I), that she tried hopelessly to set up all her friends (so did I), or that she and I shared the same first name.

Throughout the years Miss Austen has inspired me as a writer and artist, and her timeless stories continue to be a source of diversion. I love reading her novels, and feel that I gain something new each time. Now, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are tied at the top of my list for best Austen novel, and I find Emma’s character completely different (thank goodness!) from my adult self.  A large portion of my experience with Austen has been personal, but in recent years, my devotion to her writing has gone pretty public, and I even created a blog, Looking for Pemberley, inspired by my love of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane is an important part of my life, but I often feel like I have to defend her from attackers who question her merits, or who see her as a “silly lady novelist.” Quite frankly, I am glad to do it. However, I also must admit that a part of me wishes that the people who deride her appreciated her as much as they ought.

In my opinion as a reader, scholar, and feeling human being, Austen has made an incredible contribution to the world of literature that cannot be discounted. The main groups I find myself at odds with regarding Jane Austen’s talents fall into different categories, including: anti-canonical modernists, male friends, and skeptics worried she will bore them with her 18th and 19th-century marriage plots.

For the record, I do not believe that all men hate Austen, and in fact, Austenprose has helped counteract the stigma of male Janeites.

Many of my friends studying modernism, contemporary literature, and even comic books, often seem biased against Miss Austen. This comes in part because she has become so canonical, and so popular that they feel bombarded by her.

For those readers who are not familiar, the literary canon is a list of books (primarily written by white men), that scholars have favored for present and future generations to study. The canon is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that it was created and is still being created with a Western Anglo bias. The books from the canon are often seen as the “great” books, or books you “must know” if you are pursuing a career in literature, certainly.

May I say to the anti-canon critics that Austen has earned her place in the history of writers, and even in the canon if we are to study it. Her outstanding attention to detail, illustrative character analysis, the clever, and dare I say at times subversive social commentary in her works, is outstanding. As far as I am concerned, she is one of, if not the best author of her day, and any widespread acceptance she has had is not a valid reason to disregard her work.

Furthermore, Austen’s writing has much more character development than some give her credit for. For example, Anne Elliot’s innovative first person narration in Persuasion is more illustrative of the later Romantic period than Regency in the extreme focus on Anne’s interiority and emotion. As readers, we get to see and feel Anne’s thought process as a primary focus in the novel, a pioneering writing technique that is not frequently enough attributed to Austen.

In my experience, those who have an extreme dislike of Austen, or who are prejudiced against her, are also generally not familiar with her writing on an intimate level, or haven’t read her much, if at all. I realize that everyone has different opinions and tastes, and I respect that. However, I also believe it is silly to discredit a body of work you haven’t read.

If provoked, I will continue to defend the merits of Jane Austen’s writing. However, I have recently come to the conclusion that Jane doesn’t need me to defend her; she does just fine without my help.

After all, her work has been powerful enough to glean hundreds of years worth of loyal fans.

Read the books if you haven’t; they can speak for themselves.

Author Bio:

Emma Mincks is a free spirited freelance writer, editor and English tutor in her mid 20’s with feminist leanings and a love of all things foodie. Emma has been defending Jane Austen for years. She has lived in many different locations, from South Dakota to London and New Mexico, but is excited to currently work and reside in Seattle. Emma is a recovering academic beginning a career with words. You can check out her literary musings at her blog Looking for Pemberley, and visit her on Facebook at Looking for Pemberley.

Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, which will be published on the first Friday of every month.

© 2007 – 2012 Emma Mincks, Austenprose

Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Lucy Warriner

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Lucy Warriner, who shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for her.

It took me a while to give Jane Austen her due—almost fifteen years, in fact. I first encountered Austen’s novels as a young teenager. While watching Emma Thompson’s 1995 movie Sense and Sensibility, I fell in love with Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon. I was so anxious over the outcome of their relationship that I paid hardly any attention to the other characters. In due course, I read the book and was a bit dismayed to find that it wasn’t the love story I had seen in the theater. Then I watched the 1995 A&E/BBC’s six-hour Pride and Prejudice—in one sitting. As soon as I could, I tore through the novel. Reticent and self-conscious, I wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet and quell the Lady Catherine de Bourghs and Caroline Bingleys of the world.

Much indiscriminate Austen reading and movie-watching followed. My memory of my first encounter with the rest of the novels is blurred, but I’m certain that I didn’t properly appreciate any of them. I vaguely remember fearing that Henry Tilney didn’t really love Catherine Morland. I more distinctly recall nodding off during the 1971 adaptation of Persuasion.

My truer appreciation of Austen dates to my senior year of high school, when I wrote a term paper about Mansfield Park. As I read the book for the second time, it seemed as though the wool had been lifted from my eyes. I saw myself in Fanny Price, and I saw many of my peers in Mary and Henry Crawford. So I sifted through every scrap of criticism I could find, took copious notes, and wrote more than I had to. Observing this, my parents gave me a copy of David Nokes’s biography of Austen. When I presented my paper, I brought the book to class to show pictures of the topaz cross that inspired Fanny’s gift from William. My English teacher, who liked neither Austen nor me, gave me an A plus.

Still, it was another eight years before Austen captivated me. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were assigned in two of my undergraduate classes, and I leeched the life out of them with over-analysis. As a result of that experience, and the fact that rereading was then a foreign concept for me, I never returned to Austen in my free time. Instead, I read Trollope, Gaskell, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe.

All that changed shortly after I finished graduate school. I was helping care for my severely ill father when Masterpiece Classic aired its Jane Austen season in 2008. Desperate for escape, I watched the newest adaptation of Persuasion. It transfixed me. (For all its departures from the novel and all the criticism it has received, it still does.) I tracked down my battered copy of the novel from college and started reading. I could hardly put it down, and I could hardly believe that something so painfully beautiful had failed to impress me before. Anne Elliot and I were nearly the same age. While I had never lost my true love, I knew enough of regret and loneliness to understand her plight.

Over the next several months, I read the rest of Austen’s works. Darker and more ambiguous than I remembered it, MP again grew in my estimation. NA became a new love, and I delighted in Catherine’s innocent integrity. P&P and S&S didn’t immediately grab me, but I came to respect Elinor’s self-discipline and Elizabeth’s poise. While I couldn’t tolerate Emma Woodhouse, I admired Emma as a work of art.

But when I finished, I still wanted more. The novels led me to relevant biographies, histories, and critical studies. These books led me back to the novels, which prompted me to watch movies, which encouraged me to try sequels. Then the process started all over again. It continues to this day, partly because there’s always more to be learned, but mainly because I like Austen’s view of human nature. She knows that sincerity is scarce in a world preoccupied with self, wealth, and status. Her heroines must distinguish the important from the trivial, the true from the false, in themselves and in others. Actual self-awareness seems as rare as genuine friendship and love, and those who find all three are extraordinarily lucky. For me, this circumstance is as true in real life as it is in the novels. So for the next fifteen years—and beyond—I’ll keep reading Austen.

Author Bio:

Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.

Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, which will be published on the first Friday of every month.

© 2007 – 2012 Lucy Warriner, Austenprose  

Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Dara Schnuelle

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Dara Schnuelle, who shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for her.

Ask almost any high school student his or her experience with the dreaded book report and the generally expected response is either a look of horror or an agonizing groan. With my penchant for dramatic flair, I chose the groan when given my first assigned book report of my freshman year of high school. However, I was in honors English and knew I could handle any book thrown my way. The book list of classic novels was grasped firmly in my hand. My eyes skimmed the list. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The title seemed alluring enough. It had a nice alliteration.  How bad could it be? I soon discovered just how bad I would have it—in multiple ways.

“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”

Luckily, my mother had a copy of the novel at home. I picked up her weather-beaten copy and was quickly drawn to the pictures in the middle of the novel. Flooded with images of the 1940 version of the movie, my own prejudices against the novel began. Why, oh why, did I agree to read this horrid novel? Despite my reservations, I opened to chapter one. I knew the heroine was Elizabeth Bennet and I knew it was some sort of romantic comedy, but that was as far as my knowledge went. In my infinite teenage wisdom, I connected Elizabeth with the first male name I saw: Mr. Bingley. Ah, of course! Elizabeth and Bingley would be together. It had to be love at first sight. I had just read Romeo and Juliet in class. I knew the literary pattern. I already had this whole plot thing down.  In my mind, I didn’t even need to read the rest. I found the novel to be increasingly tedious. I had already figured out the plot, why continue? I needed a quick way out of this nightmare. My escape was clear: who needs to read a book when there are movie versions available? Luckily I had encountered in my mother’s VHS collection a video labeled “A&E Pride and Prejudice.” BINGO!

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

I popped the video in and began watching. After about thirty minutes I had to admit I was wrong about Elizabeth and Bingley. How had my fine understanding of plot failed me? No matter, I didn’t care about his novel, anyway. Or did I? I had to begrudgingly admit, this Mr. Darcy fellow seemed slightly intriguing. And Elizabeth Bennet sounded like someone I would have been BFFs with if we ran into each other. I guess (insert enormous sigh) I could keep watching. Time began to pass without my desperate need to glance at the clock. I was drawn in. Vividly, I recall yelling at Darcy to “spit it out already” during that awkward silence before his disastrous proposal at Hunsford. Like Darcy, I hadn’t even realized by the end of the series how badly, against my will, I had fallen for these characters. To quote Elizabeth, “I, who [had] prided myself on my discernment! – I, who [had] valued myself on my abilities” had grossly misjudged them. Once the joyous five hours were over, I greedily grabbed the tattered novel laying on my nightstand and hungrily devoured every word. Life and what I wanted to do with mine had a whole new meaning.

How very like Elizabeth and Darcy I was! I was blinded by prejudice and could not see the value of what was before me. Today, as a secondary English teacher, I cringe to look back at how quickly I disregarded a piece of literature for its film counterpart. I learned to appreciate Austen’s wit and irony, so I have to appreciate the irony that brought me to my profession as an English teacher and a lover of history and literature. I broke the English teacher taboo in order to bring me to that very role. To once again steal words from Elizabeth, “till [that] moment I never knew myself”.

Author Bio:

Dara Schnuelle is the newest teacher in her wonderful family of educators. She has taught both junior high and high school English and aspires to one day be a writer. However, the time constraints of being a teacher and a newlywed tend to get in the way.

Contrary to the belief of her students, Dara does not live in her classroom and does venture out into “the real world” on occasion. When outside of the classroom, Dara is a self-proclaimed Anglophile and constantly dreams of her next trip to England. When not plotting her return to English soil or grading papers, she can be found reading, watching too many television shows, and spending time with her family and two adorable miniature dachshunds. Dara lives, quite happily, in Arizona.

Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, that will be published on the first Friday of every month.

© 2007 – 2012 Dara Schnuelle, Austenprose

Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Jeffrey Ward

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Jeffrey Ward, fellow book reviewer and frequent visitor here who shares his personal story of how he discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for him.

“Intolerably Stupid:” My Improbable Journey to Jane Austen

As a youngster growing up in and near San Francisco, when I wasn’t goofing around outdoors, my earliest memories of reading were of an old used set of the massive encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge.  I remember it encompassing about a dozen intimidating volumes but this kid read EVERY page. This imprinted into my psyche a life-long habit of reading non-fiction and my overt disregard for practically everything fictional.  Consequently, I’ve been a life-long fact-finding trivia geek; however, by Jane Austen’s standards, I was still “intolerably stupid.”

This stubborn habit continued throughout high school, the military, and university.  After two decades and some 330+ semester hours of credits in every possible discipline, this career student finally received a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from the University of Washington.  My lop-sided education was a mile wide and an inch deep.

I worked in the airline industry where my non-fiction reading continued unabated and most prominently featured history, biographies, current events, technical articles and industry-related topics.  My fiction-loving wife, family, and friends, continually asked me if I had read this novel or that novel to which I replied haughtily “Reading that stuff is a waste of time.” So, my contempt for fiction continued shamefully for about 55 years!

My fiction epiphany began a scant five years ago in an almost mystical manner. One evening, I had exhausted my current stash of non-fiction and was having a “nothing to read” anxiety attack.  In an effort to stave off withdrawal symptoms, I wandered into our home office and perused our largest book case.  At first, I saw nothing but my familiar non-fiction.  But what was THIS and how did it get here? My eyes locked on to Emma by Jane Austen.  I thought “Oh well, why not?”  So, I pried out the volume, blew some dust off the top and returned to my bedside. Little did I know that in my smug non-fictional pride I was just about to be struck off my mount on my own personal road to Damascus by an irresistible force which was poised to draw me inexorably into the sublime realm of fiction.

Still, it almost didn’t happen. Totally unfamiliar as I was with Miss Austen’s style, I struggled through the first 100 pages of Emma, trying to make sense of her bewildering cast of characters and how she so ingeniously “set the table.”  At around 100 pages, the “scales” fell from my eyes and I hungrily devoured Emma, starved from a lifetime of depriving myself of a great story!  When I got to the resolution of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s second turn in the bushes, I was totally overcome with emotion.  I jumped up, wept openly, howled with glee, and pranced around the room with exultation! What was happening to me?  Here was something I had seldom experienced in my drab, sterile non-fiction existence:  Being baptized into the warmth of human affection, irony, desire, longing, sorrow, comedy and suspense.  Dear God, I was an incurable romantic and it took Jane Austen to finally pry open my long-suppressed heart to release this latent gift!  With a wink and nod to Laurel Ann’s, Jane Austen Made Me do It.

I later learned that Emma was left in our book case and forgotten by our daughter following her graduation from college. I’m convinced that this was no coincidence but a divine appointment!

I’ve since read all of Jane Austen’s novels multiple times; this from a guy who hardly ever read a book more than once. Our divine Miss Austen has been critically referred to by some as the greatest writer of English literature since William Shakespeare.   Her unique and distinctive writing style has been imitated but never equaled. Her unforgettable characters fairly leap off the pages as if fully alive.  Her humor is a hammer covered in velvet.  Her gradual crescendos of emotional suspense are palpable. Her ironic twists and turns are astonishing.  Her dialogues are so captivating that I find myself vocally entering into her conversations as I read!

It is appropriate that Jane Austen was the gateway through which this stone-cold empirical naysayer would finally enter into the promised land of fiction.  Here at Austenprose, I’m now expanding my horizons by enjoying the works of many talented contemporary authors who ply the rich legacy left to us by Miss Austen.  As I post, review, and opine throughout the blogosphere, I hope my love, enthusiasm, and gratitude for all things Austen shines forth.

Jeffrey Ward, 65, native San Franciscan living near Atlanta, married 40 years, two adult children, six grandchildren, Vietnam Veteran, degree in Communications from the University of Washington, and presently a Facilitator/designer for the world’s largest regional airline.  His love affair with Miss Austen began about 3 years ago when, out of boredom, he picked up his daughter’s dusty college copy of Emma and he was “off to the races.”

© 2007 – 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose