Welcome to My Reading Life, a series where I revisit the authors and novels that have shaped me into the reader I am today.
When I was in my 20s, there seemed to be a resurgence of the works of Jane Austen, beginning with that timeless BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), starring the very perfect Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Around the same time, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant all appeared in the very beautiful Sense and Sensibility (1995). This was followed by two delightful adaptations of Emma in 1996, one starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Toni Collette with the other starring Kate Beckinsale. From the release of these adaptations, my passion for Jane Austen was born, however, not because I watched before I read. Rather, the film tie-in versions of the novels started popping up everywhere, and I’ve always been a sucker for a film tie-in; many a time have I bought a novel with a film tie-in cover when I possibly wouldn’t have looked at it otherwise. So I bought Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and then by the time Emma came out with its new cover graced by Gwenyth Paltrow, I was hooked on Austen well and truly, tuning into the ABC each Sunday night for the next instalment of Pride and Prejudice – no binge TV back in those days! Of course, I never went to the cinema to see Sense and Sensibility or Emma, opting instead to hire them on VCR (ha! anyone else remember $6 a night new release, $10 for two movies?!) as that fitted my student budget much better and allowed me time in-between uni assignments to savour the novels first.
I went on to read every novel written by Jane Austen in rapid succession along with any other information about her that I could get my hands on, which was no small task given that smart phones and tablets were not yet invented and the internet still came with a dial tone and a twenty minute wait time on connection. But I loved her heroines, with their steadfast desire to be true to themselves, to marry for love rather than status; and they were always uncommonly smart, big readers and consequently far too intelligent and imaginative for most of their peers or siblings, ‘surprising their unlikely suitors’. Since these early days, I’ve watched many other adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, particularly enjoying Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, not her most popular novels, but still bearing her trademark wit and irony. Earlier this year I got to experience Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, via the 2016 adaptation Love and Friendship starring Kate Beckinsale in the leading role, and what a wicked delight it was! Snarky humour with a sheen of impoverished glamour; such an entertaining film that has been reviewed as a faithful interpretation of the original Lady Susan story.
Jane Austen’s six novels were published over a period from 1811 through to 1818, two hundred years ago now, yet the narrative remains accessible and enjoyable, a testimony to Jane’s skill at writing entertaining novels. The social realism that Jane played out in the drawing rooms of the English middle and upper classes seems to have a timeless appeal, the notions of love versus family obligation still relevant today. But if I were to be completely honest, the reason I love reading Jane Austen is because her novels are truly delightful. She writes with a wit and irony I admire greatly, her satirical projection of the social mores of the day providing many laughable moments. Her words are transparent and heartfelt; I don’t need to search her prose for hidden meaning, it’s all beautifully laid out for me to enjoy. I’ll never tire of reading my Jane Austen novels. They’re as comforting to me as a cup of hot tea at the end of a long day. Likewise with my Jane Austen adaptations (now on DVD instead of VCR – moving with the times, of course), if I’m ever feeling unwell, one of those is sure to alleviate some of my suffering and provide some much-needed comfort.
And despite the fact that it’s her most popular work, my favourite is Pride and Prejudice, both to read and watch – the Colin Firth BBC mini-series version of course! – the outrageous Bennet family gets me every time, and then there’s Mr Darcy, always Mr Darcy. This is followed closely by Sense and Sensibility on account of the lovely sister relationship at the heart of that story. Jane Austen is an author I expect I would’ve liked immensely if I’d had a chance to meet her, but alas, 160 years separates her death from my birth.
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
– Pride and Prejudice.
Covers depicted in this article form part of the Penguin Classics Hardcover Series currently available from all book retailers, both local and online.