By Sarah Levesque (Rated G)
Pride and Prejudice was the first period drama novel I had ever read. It was on the summer reading list for my high school (I usually read every book on each year’s list, though only two were required). I enjoyed the book immensely. While Lizzy was practically me, I had Jane’s optimistic view of every person in my acquaintance. Kitty was understandable as well, as I, too, rarely got to do anything before my younger sibling – he and I did everything together, and sometimes that was good, and sometimes it was extremely annoying. Lydia was the hardest to identify with – she was silly and emotion-driven, while I have always tried to be sensible and logical. But I enjoyed the book and the movies (yes, both the 1995 Colin Firth version and the 2005 Keira Knightly version). I still do – I have reread and re-watched them many times. And I’m glad it landed me in the world of Period Drama.
Sense and Sensibility was my second Austen novel. For some reason I’ve never been able to put my finger on, I didn’t like it quite as much as Pride and Prejudice, though I certainly enjoyed it. Maybe it was Willoughby that tainted it. Or the two Steele girls. Or Sir John and Mrs. Jennings. Wow, I didn’t realize how many characters missed my A-list! But there’s a sense of realism to each of them that makes the book a good one. Who hasn’t met a jealous fiancée, or a meddling-with-the-best-intentions family member? Not to mention a total airhead. I did like the human perspective. In this story I was Elinor, cautious and logical and opposed to the emotional, tumultuous and fast-paced relationship between Marianne and Willoughby. I wasn’t such a fan of the age gap between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, but I honestly enjoyed the book and whichever movie I watched (2008?) – the people, situations, and emotions are still very relevant today, which is why I’ve read and watched Sense and Sensibility multiple times.
As for Emma, I didn’t like Emma Woodhouse, and if you don’t like the main character, it’s hard to like the book. To me, Emma seemed a stuck up, nosy, pushy busybody who took advantage of her younger, less wellborn, more naive friend Harriet Smith, convincing her that she should marry a guy she had never met instead of the man she actually loved. Poor Harriet! I’m glad it didn’t work out. And SO much flirting between Emma and Frank Churchill, when neither meant anything by it! I’ve only just learned that before starting the book, Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (see A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh). And when Emma does realize who she really loves, there’s an enormous age gap! And I found it really creepy that he loved her since she was only thirteen or so, though other than that he’s an amazing gentleman. So yeah, I didn’t like Emma. Would that change if I reread the book or watched one of the movies? Perhaps. After all, I’m not sixteen and extremely naive any more. But I doubt my opinion would change.
I will be honest – it has been years since the one time I read Northanger Abbey, and it didn’t stick with me with the same amount of annoyance as Emma had. I recall not liking it, but all I really remember was one part: the main character, Catherine, was invited to an acquaintance’s house, and when she arrived, she explored it far more than was acceptable, then decided her friend’s mother had been murdered by the friend’s father. A blatantly false and hurtful accusation or rumor. My sympathetic embarrassment rendered me as mortified as Catherine when this idea was proved untrue (yes, sympathetic embarrassment gets me a lot – Anne of Green Gables and Princess Diaries are nightmares). Wikipedia tells me that Northanger Abbey is actually a lighthearted parody of the Gothic novels that were popular at the time. Maybe I should reread it. Maybe I’ll like it better now that I’m older. Or maybe the secondhand embarrassment would kill me.
Mansfield Park was another book I did not like when I first read it as a teen. I thought there was altogether too much flirting, and most of it insincere or seeming to lead towards sin. But much more recently I listened to the radio drama performed by David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch (with others) – a must listen for any Whovian or Sherlockian! And I enjoyed it. Maybe it was the actors, or the fact that it was a radio drama, or that I was older. There were still certain things I disliked, but Fanny Price was not so different from my younger self – a shy, naive girl who could not ignore her moral compass but whose opinions counted for very little among her acquaintances.
From the start, I loved Persuasion. I read it later than the others, not knowing of its existence until a few years later, when I bought the Austen collection on my e-reader, if I remember correctly. Again there were some annoying characters, like Anne’s sister Mary, a complainer of the highest degree. But they were all true to life, and may be found to this day. But the best thing about Persuasion was that Anne got a second chance at love, despite her mistakes. And other characters got second chances despite tragedy. I identified strongly with Anne – logical and true to herself, despite the silliness and/or logic of those dear to her. Above all, I loved the unconditional love found in the book in various forms and relationships. But I won’t give away any more – go and read it if you never have, or at least watch the movie.
And as a bonus, I’m going to tell you how much I loved North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. She’s another author who knows exactly how to put real people into her work – any of her characters could be found today, I think. And the struggles are real as well, and can also be seen today – how is a young lady to view an eligible man who doesn’t seem to treat his employees well? And how is that man supposed to pay his employees living wages if the market is so low he can barely keep his business running? And what are the employees to do without living wages? Very good questions, all, and very well asked and answered through this novel. The 2004 TV series adaptation was very good, as well, and did not stray far from the books, which I liked!
Image from the author’s collection.