Loving Jane Austen

Jane Austen is so popular these days she's probably been a write-in candidate in more than one election. Who knows, she might even have won some of them. I'd vote for her.

When I started reading Austen in college in the mid-70s, the amazing Austen boom hadn't taken place. Bookstores didn't teem with Austen mugs, memo pads, tote bags, dolls and key-chains. Our TV, movie, tablet and smartphone screens weren't filled with Austen adaptations. She didn't permeate our entire culture, but she bedazzled me anyway.

I came to her work from several different directions. A dedicated English major, I had her on my own personal list even before she was assigned reading. I was working my way through Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Richardson and Sterne and I wanted to follow the development of the English novel step-by-step.

But I also had fallen in love with Ann Radcliffe's terror Gothic in The Romance of the Forest, The Italian, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, and knew that Austen had spoofed them in Northanger Abbey. I loved the idea of literary parody when the novel was a new genre, and had relished Fielding's Shamela, which eviscerated Richardson's wildly popular sentimental novel Pamela.

My creative writing teacher had urged me to read "everything" if I wanted to be a writer, and it was advice I had no trouble taking. I devoured every author I enjoyed, and with Austen, it was easy to read all six novels more than once. The darker ones, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, didn't speak to me as much as the comic novels, perhaps because I wasn't that far from adolescence and so I relished her devastating portraits of hypocrites, bullies and bad parents.

Clare Connors has noted that "there are different Austens for different readers." Though marriage was central in Austen's books, she didn't strike me as romantic; she was a social critic and a critic of cruelty in every form. Even now when I return to Emma or Pride and Prejudice, I'm struck by her sharp satire. Austen's no softee, there's more Fielding in her than Richardson, and that still speaks to me across the years.

I reread Austen for fun, I reread her for education, I reread her for inspiration. Over time, different novels of hers have been my favorite, but like George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, she's a novelist who has woven herself into my life and into my career. Her books may exist in a gigantic echo chamber these days, but their still, small voice is as powerful as ever.