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.
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.
COLLECTION JANE AUSTEN COLLECTIBLES!
This year I collected the Folio Society editions of Jane Austen. My old paperback editions were tanned and scruffy.
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.