Gentle 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.
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