contemporary-books

I recently completed reading all of Jane Austen’s finished novels, a pleasant and rewarding project. Although her body of work was not large, there is not a single clunker in the bunch. The same cannot be said for many other novelists.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. – Northanger Abbey

Like Shakespeare, Austen was a master of her form. As I was listening to Sense and Sensibility (the first of Austen’s books published but the last that I read), I happened to glance down at the progress bar just as Willoughby had sent his devastating letter to Marianne. It was exactly the fifty percent point. Austen know how to structure a narrative arc–she made it look easy.

Well, I am convinced that there is a vast deal of inconsistency in almost every human character. – Sense and Sensibility

Austen’s novels cannot be dismissed as merely romances. Her characters are fully realized people who come to seem like old friends, but they also represent the wide range of folly to be found in human nature. Austen used her constricted social settings to illuminate the limitations placed on women without coming across as preachy or melodramatic. Although her novels are 200 years old, we have no trouble relating to her characters or recognizing these issues with gender roles that our society still struggles with today.

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them. – Mansfield Park

Although Austen’s novels follow the same general format, each one is unique and has something important to say. Her satire on the gothic romance, Northanger Abbey, is often laugh-out-loud funny, but also a charming appreciation of readers and novels, as well as an exhortation to young women to rely on themselves and their own merits. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, showcases Austen’s biting, pointed wit; everyone gets exactly what they deserve in the end. As a coming-of-age story, Emma features a heroine who genuinely experiences self-realization and change over the course of the book.  (This essay is an illuminating look at how Austen pioneered a new point of view in novels that we now take for granted in Emma.) Many of us admire and want to emulate the headstrong, self-assured Elizabeth Bennett, but it is often Elinor Dashwood with whom we most sympathize and respect. Persuasion is possibly Austen’s most mature novel, a character study of an introspective, analytical heroine that advocates the rights of women to choose their own way in life.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning. – Persuasion

I’m sure I will continue to return to Austen’s novels as touchstones in my reading life. I count her among my favorite writers. Even after two centuries, her work remains relevant, inspiring, and unsurpassed.

Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. … Till this moment I never knew myself. – Pride and Prejudice

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