Since then I've read and re-read all six of the published books, the Juvenilia, the Letters and the Life, and other lives, and literary criticism, and in fact anything I could get my hands on. I've also watched every possible film and TV adaptation, usually with some disappointment. But hey, it's always been enjoyable, even if I've spent some time shouting at the screen, 'No! That's not what the book says!' to the annoyance of my companion(s).
So why do I like Jane Austen? (Apart from the fact that like me and Shakespeare, she couldn't spell?)
In writing about Jane Austen, It would be easy to spend the whole time on her humour. Lady Catherine de Burgh's interview with Elizabeth must be mentioned, and Sir Walter Eliot's preoccupation with the Baronetage and especially his own entry in it; and I particularly love the bit in Sense and Sensibility where Elinor is trying to be calm about the possibility that Edward may be about to propose to her – or may not. '…with a countenance meaning to be open, she sat down again and talked of the weather.' And it would be very bad to forget Miss Bates in Emma, although there is far too much of her to quote at length. You'll have to read it for yourself, if you haven't done so already.
But it's not just her humour that makes me love Jane Austen. (Mind you, I think humour in novels is seriously undervalued, and I can never consider a writer as one of my real favourites who doesn't have at least a bit of it . One reason why I prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway, for example.)
But Jane Austen's real strength lies in her characters, and in her depth of meaning.
Take her characters first. Probably her most popular character is Darcy, mainly because of his portrayal by Colin Firth. I've no objection to that. But I like Elizabeth much more, and Anne Eliot, and Fanny Price. Darcy, in the actual book, starts off as a bit of a pain. (Rather like my own John Branagh, in Belfast Girls.) Elizabeth hears him saying about her at a dance, 'She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men…' No wonder Elizabeth starts off prejudiced against him! And his arrogant proposal later in the book hardly helps. But Elizabeth, witty, kind, intelligent and easy to relate to, is an ideal heroine. 'Light and bright and sparkling,' as Jane Austen herself said.
I began by having Elizabeth Bennet as my favourite, moved on to Anne Eliot, and then went to Fanny Price – signs of growth. Currently I like Emma quite a lot, and am tending back towards Elizabeth.
But it's not just the heroines she excels in. Jane Austen's minor characters – Miss Bates, Mr Woodhouse, Mr and Mrs Elton; the Misses Steele, Mrs Jennings, Robert Ferrars; Mr Collins, Lady Catherine de Burgh; Mrs Norris, and so many others, are drawn with amazing dexterity and liveliness; and if there were no heroes or heroines to grab our attention, these minor characters would still make us return to the books again and again.
I could write at much further length about Jane Austen's depth, but perhaps I'll just go and re-read Mansfield Park or Emma – now, which? Decisions, decisions! – instead.
Meanwhile, I almost (but not quite) hesitate to mention my own books in the same breath as Jane Austen. But have you read Belfast Girls, or Danger Danger, or my latest, The Seanachie: Tales of Old Seamus, yet? Do please try them. I'll love you forever! You can buy them at these links:
God Bless! See you soon!