It’s one of the most troublesome parts of my life that not all my best friends adore Jane Austen as much as I do. Some of them—dare I say it—don’t even like her. Some of them haven’t even read her, and to be honest I’m not sure why I’m still friends with those ones. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Christy.) I think that a lot of people have the wrong idea about what kind of writer Jane Austen actually is, and it puts them off. But the truth is that almost any kind of reader can fall in love with Jane Austen. And I’m here to answer the first question that probably pops into your head when you face Jane Austen: Where to start?
You wouldn’t believe it hearing most people talk about Mr Darcy—but Austen’s novels are actually not, first and foremost, romances. That’s not to say the love stories aren’t an important part, or that it’s not a valid interpretation of the book if the love story is what shaped your reading—but to box them all solely into the romantic genre is pretty limiting.
Because Jane Austen is actually a satirist; she makes fun of everyone and everything she writes about. Her books are a social commentary; I mean, I don’t think you could quite argue that she was a revolutionary feminist, but what’s cool about her is she’s open-minded. Her books are also completely hilarious; you could even read them as straight-up parody. In fact, every time you read them, you could read them a little bit differently—because she’s just that deep, man.
But where to start if you’re an Austen first-timer?
Pride and Prejudice
Perfect for: rom-com fans
If romance is your thing, then Pride & Prej is a great jumping-off point. It’s got all the elements of the perfect love story: the handsome yet moody love interest who turns out to have a troubled past; the witty but often socially awkward heroine; the love triangle with the sexy player who’s not quite what he seems. If that sounds like Bridget Jones, it’s because it literally is.
But aside from the classic love story, you’ll also find in P&P a collection of the funniest supporting characters of all time. There’s Mrs Bennet, the social-climbing matriarch; Mr Bennet, her long-suffering and deeply sarcastic husband; and Mr Collins, an absurdly pompous cousin—and that’s just for starters.
Perfect for: soap opera fans
There’s a ton going on in Mansfield Park, so you might want to practise keeping track of a big crowd of characters by watching a marathon of Neighbours or something. In short, the terribly poor 10-year-old Fanny Price comes to live with her aunt at Mansfield Park, and has a generally rotten time.
Mansfield Park is the least funny of Austen’s novels, but in exchange, it arguably has the most depth. Not only does it reach across class boundaries, it also hints at historical context (something that Austen is infamous for rarely doing) by featuring two central families called Mansfield and Norris, rivals at that time on the issue of slavery. It’s got the most sex, and the most scandal; it’s got innuendos about “rears and vices”; it’s got adultery and it’s got seduction and it’s got cruelty. Yeah, it’s quite a story, Mansfield Park.
Perfect for: fans of Clueless and unlikeable heroines
Of all the film adaptations of Austen’s novels that have been made over the year, the high school-set Clueless may be the most faithful to the book. You know, except for the yellow tartan skirts and the ‘90s slang. So if you know Clueless inside out (and let’s face it, who doesn’t), then reading Emma is a pretty great and familiar experience.
Before reading Emma, though, you need to be prepared to not actually like the main character. Austen herself said that Emma was “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, and certainly, in my A-level English class we all hated her. Now that I’ve read this book about 165 times, however, I adore Emma. I love watching her learning curve; I relate to her poor judgement; I can forgive her for the sheltered background that prevented her, as a child, from opening her mind to the less privileged. And when the lovely Mr Knightley berates her for a mistake by telling her it was “badly done, Emma” (OK, that exact quote is actually from the Gwyneth Paltrow version and not from the book, but whatevs), it speaks straight to my soul—and not just because my name is Emma.
Perfect for: fans of parody, ghost stories, and Zooey Deschanel
Northanger Abbey is basically a piss-take from start to finish. Its heroine, the adorkable Catherine Morland, is obsessed with the gothic novels that were so popular at the time (basically the Regency version of “chick lit” but with more ghosts)—and so she is constantly getting in trouble by imagining that she’s living in one. Like, she accuses her boyfriend’s dad of having murdered his dead wife. Kind of unacceptable, Catherine. It’s a rather different style to Austen’s usual, but I basically smiled from beginning to end while reading this.
Perfect for: the broken-hearted, and fans of a good cry
Persuasion is Austen’s last completed novel, and the difference in tone is marked. Her protagonist Anne is, for that time, relatively old to be unmarried; Austen even harshly describes her as a “haggard” 27-year-old. Ouch. The love story here has already been and gone; Anne fell in love in her teens with Captain Wentworth, but was persuaded by her snobby family to turn him down. Since then, she has been living a sad, lonely but uncomplaining and unselfish life taking care of her horrible family—until a bitter and unforgiving Wentworth reappears in Anne’s life. *Start playing Adele’s new album on repeat*
If you prefer your love stories heartbreakingly real over romantic and fun, then Persuasion has all the heartache you could want.
Sense and Sensibility
Perfect for: people with sisters, and Frozen fans.
Sense and Sensibility, like Pride and Prejudice, has all the trappings of the classic love story as well as laugh-out-loud supporting characters—but I actually like it much better than its more beloved counterpart. Maybe it’s because it has some of the best passive-aggressive exchanges ever recorded; maybe it’s because the rude and dead-pan character Mr Palmer literally makes me laugh out loud every time he speaks. (He even makes a “your mum” joke. Yeah. Jane Austen invented that.) Some of it is because I relate to the self-indulgent and overly emotional Marianne; and some of it is because I wish I related to the strong and caring Elinor. And a lot of it is because its central love story is not either of the two marriage plots, but that between the two sisters—and so it’s basically like watching Frozen.
OK, you’re ready to get going with your first Jane Austen novel. Then all you need to do is read all the other books a couple thousand times and you’ll be up to my level—where you do crazy things like impersonate Jane Austen characters on OKCupid, or dress up as a Jane Austen character for Halloween, or become convinced that all Taylor Swift songs are about Jane Austen men. Or you’ll write a whole dissertation on Jane Austen (titled Intimacy and Isolation because she totes would have approved of that name), and you’ll end up reading this many books about her in one go:
That’s when you’ll know things have really gone downhill.