Upon reading this sentence, the first in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, during my second year of college – I was hooked and from that moment forward I joined the legions of passionate Jane Austen fans. “Janeite” is a term coined and taken up during the late nineteenth century by a group of male literary critics and publishers and the label carried a clubby sort of aura. It denoted a privately held enthusiasm, almost on the order of a guilty pleasure, sort of how some people nurture a secret fondness for mayo and peanut butter sandwiches or for playing the lute. Now, “Janeite” often carries a pejorative meaning (though not always) for those who move in the rarefied academic world and tends to refer to people who indulge in the campier side of Jane Austen fandom such as costuming and reenactment events. Me? I just love the books. From the popular, much beloved and often filmed Pride and Prejudice to the undeniably problematic Mansfield Park – I can’t get enough Austen. I admit that I’ve yet to read Lady Susan – an early work of Austen’s which has been adapted for the screen by Whit Stillman as Love and Friendship (see it – it’s fun!) – but I look forward to doing so soon.
Make no mistake, I’m not one of those readers who swoon over Mr. Darcy (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you are!). My appreciation for Austen is tied up more with her consistently acute observation of what was, admittedly, a fairly narrow slice of the world and with her ironic sense of humor. Indeed, I’ve read most of Austen’s novels more than once and never fail to find them newly entertaining. I also remain fascinated with the offshoots and culture that have grown up around Jane Austen’s life and work. From the weird (but kind of wonderful) to the earnestly correct there appears to be something for everyone in Austenland (which, incidentally, is the title of a 2013 feature film based on a Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel). I encourage you to explore and find your own cozy niche. Are you into needlework? Don’t miss The Best of Jane Austen Knits: 27 regency-inspired designs. Do you fancy a stirring love story mixed in with your epic struggle against the undead? Be sure to check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: the classic Regency romance – now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem.
Of course, apart from Austen’s own novels, there’s a plethora of fiction inspired by it. Here’s a very abbreviated list.
Longbourn by Jo Baker (Pride and Prejudice told from the household servants point of view)
Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict: a novel by Laurie Viera Rigler (A modern woman’s time travel leads to amusing complication…and culture shock!)
Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron (the first in a mystery series featuring Jane Austen as sleuth)
Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg (an engaging YA romp set at an exclusive girl’s academy)
The works of Jane Austen have also inspired a host of non-fiction books. Here’s a few that provide an unusual approach to the material.
The Jane Austen Handbook: a sensible yet elegant guide to her world by Margaret C. Sullivan
At Home With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
Jane Austen Rules: a classic guide to modern love by Sinead Murphy
Do you like Jane Austen? What’s your favorite of her novels? If you’ve never read her books and want to see what they’re all about, I would recommend starting with Pride and Prejudice – to my mind still her best – although I can’t help putting in a plug for my first Austen crush, Northanger Abbey. It’s one of her shorter novels, and most important, it’s very, very funny. Enjoy!