Summer Rereading of Jane Austen

This Modern Library Giant was my first Jane Austen.

I am rereading Jane Austen.

In March I reread Persuasion, in which the gentle Anne Elliot reconnects with Captain Wentworth, and in  April I read  Sense and Sensibility for the first time in years. Poor Elinor and Marianne!  Their boyfriends’ deceptions and secret engagements with richer women shocked me.  I know many readers find Jane’s novels romantic, but her heroes often appall me.

We all have our favorite Austens.  I especially love Emma.

I was enchanted by the first sentence.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

At the university in a Nineteenth-Century Literature class, even the Vietnam vets loved Emma. Napalm and Nixon didn’t exist in Emma.  I read the novel mainly as satire then, while the radical professor was impatient with Austen’s conservatism.  Now I see both elements.

But I do shudder at Knightley, who seemed a romantic hero during my first reading. In middle age my opinion changed.

Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

I love Jane Austen’s wit and chortle over Emma’s absurd misunderstandings, matchmaking, and meddling, but am sorry that Knightley is the sole eligible man for her.  I see Emma as George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda and Knightley as the controlling Grandcourt.  Am I wrong?

I am slowly reading Helena Kelly’s new book,  Jane Austen:  The Secret Radical, an excellent critical work for common readers.  I admired the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, but have not read the chapter on Emma yet.


This year I collected the Folio Society editions of Jane Austen.  My old paperback editions were tanned and scruffy.

No, I did not take this beautiful photo of Folio Society Austens.  I found it on Google.

I suppose a true collector would want first editions (or are those beyond our wildest dreams?), but good lord, I am not a collector. The Folio Society editions with their beautiful paper and illustrations are just right for me as collectibles go.  I very much enjoy reading my favorite classics in these lovely hardbacks.  Can illustrations enhance our reading?  Yes.

And so I own the four Folio Society Janes now in print:  Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion.

To finish the set, I bought used copies of the 1989 Folio Society editions of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  with illustrations by Joan Hassall.  They are lovely, too, and much cheaper.

What Austens are on my dream list?  I do admire Helen Sewall’s illustrations in the Heritage editions. I believe it was Jean who commented here about Sewall.

But I cannot have every edition of Jane Austen!  Here is one of Sewall’s illustrations from Pride and Prejudice.

An illustration by Helen Sewall in Pride and Prejudice.

11 thoughts on “Summer Rereading of Jane Austen

  1. I love Jane Austen! When I first read Emma, as a teenager, I was also dismayed by Mr Knightley. Rereading it a bit later in life, I am more sympathetic: he really was the only choice for Emma, given the constraints of her situation, and I don’t think Frank Churchill would have worked out for her at all. And Austen does a nice job of planting little hints of his sexual desirability throughout the novel.

    My favorite of Austen’s novels is probably Persuasion, which I think is maybe her least well known. However, I find something particularly poignant in it.


    • Oh, I love Persuasion, too. I like both the heroine and the romantic hero in that one.
      I idealized Knightley the first time through and then became disenchanted over time because he is so critical of Emma. I don’t think it would work out well. Frank Churchill is one of Austen’s bad boys but Emma might be a better match for him than Jane Fairfax. Well, perhaps Jane is in control there.

      I love all of Austen, though. What a writer!


  2. Kat,
    Yes, it was me who mentioned Helen Sewall. You have a good memory! I am finally reading again. The first 2 months after breaking bones in my elbow and wrist took a toll on my ability to hold a book! I just began a true story set in London during WWII entitled The Marriage Bureau. So far so good!


    • I have looked at Sewall’s illustrations online and they are magnificent! I am so glad you are recovering. Haven’t heard of The Marriage Bureau but I love WWII books.


  3. I love Mr Knightley and I think there is a sexual attraction between him and Emma which she herself does not realise until later in the novel. You may like Lucy Worsley’s new book Jane Austen at Home. She is very fond of Emma, too.


    • Thanks for the recommendation of Lucy Worsley. I seem to have heard of her at The Guardian (?) and this book is available in the U.S. so will look for it.


  4. I’m rereading Jane Austen too and my favourite novel is Emma. I love Mr Knightly. I know he’s critical of Emma but he teaches her to be a better person, I think. I know Emma is a snob but she learns from her mistakes and gets her happy ending.


    • Well, I used to love Knightly, but somehow I took against him last time. He is very charming, though, and I’m one of those who reads a book differently during every rereading!


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