READING PATHWAYS: Jane Austen
Jane Austen wrote possibly the best, most biting and entertaining social commentary of the English middle and upper classes that exists in the literary canon. She also created some of the most iconic couples in literature. If you’ve never read Austen, this is the order I would suggest:
1. Sense and Sensibility. This was Austen’s first novel, published in 1811 (Factoid: she initially wrote it in epistolary format and later changed it to a more traditional narrative). You’ll be introduced to Austen’s biting social commentary, subtle satire, and romance-as-comedy-of-manners plot lines.
2. Pride and Prejudice. I wouldn’t read this first because it’s so tired and overdone (I CAN HAZ NO MOAR FANFICTION PUH-LEASE) that if you don’t like it, it’s easy to dismiss all of Austen’s works (and honestly, if all her books were anything like that awful Keira Knightley adaptation, I wouldn’t read them, either [moving on]). In my opinion, the secondary characters are the best part of this classic romance and the arena through which Austen really releases her more sarcastic side.
3. Emma. On the surface, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of matchmaking, but Austen is really making a statement about the boredom, uselessness and dull nature of the lives of upper-class single women. Austen called Emma herself a character no one but the author would like- she’s well meaning but spoiled and small-minded. Like her other novels, Emma has romantic hijinks-a-plenty, but it almost takes a backseat to Austen’s social commentary and masterful realism.
After these three books, you’ll have a solid grasp on Austen’s stylistic development and her amazing tone. If you want to keep going, go with Persuasion next, which is her most mature and sophisticated book. Northanger Abbey is a satire of the gothic novel genre and is quite funny (and the male lead is the most flirtatious and playful of Austen’s love interests). I can take or leave Mansfield Park, which I found overly moralizing. The main character is so uptight you wonder how she’ll stand the more, er, exciting parts of being married if she ever does land her romantic interest.
Amanda Nelson is a freelance writer living in Richmond, VA. She blogs about (mostly) classic literature at Dead White Guys. Follow her on Twitter: @deadwhiteguys