Jane Austen Boxset

As I imagine is quite typical for British readers of a certain age, my first encounter with Jane Austen was via the iconic BBC television version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. When I turned to its source material I was delighted to find the book just as witty, clever, and engaging – if not more. Austen is adored for her sharp social commentary, and her vivid, complex characters and all of her work, from the satirical to the romantic, has something to entertain and enchant.

Of course, the order you should read Austen in hugely depends on what you are looking to get from her, or what you enjoy reading. Although this list is one pathway, there’s no right or wrong way to discover an author. I’ve tried to highlight the particular joys of each title so that you can choose to go your own way and start with the book that most speaks to you.

I’ve divided this list, roughly, into Austen’s three more light-hearted and overtly funny books as the best place to start, followed by her three more melancholy reads once you’re fully in the Austen rhythm.

Pride and Prejudice (1813)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when most people think of Jane Austen they think of this charming and likeable story of love, difficult families, and Darcy emerging in a wet shirt (adjust your expectations now, I’m afraid the lake scene is not in the novel). This is a good place to start as it’s likely you’ll have some familiarity with the story; whether you’ve seen the TV show, the film, the web series, or just soaked up some awareness via its perennial pop culture presence. This means that rather than having to worry too much about keeping track of the plot, you can instead revel in Austen’s biting sense of humour and wonderfully brought to life cast of characters from the obsequious Mr Collins to heroine Lizzy Bennett, Austen’s personal favourite of all her heroines.   

Emma (1815)

Emma is a comedy of errors full of misunderstandings, misguided plans and a heroine who Austen merrily pokes fun at. It has a fair amount in common with Pride and Prejudice, but Emma is a less obviously likeable heroine than Lizzy, who is somewhat deluded in her matchmaking schemes. But this makes for the novel’s real joy; enjoying the incredibly clever way Austen contrasts what we know to be true about Emma with how she herself perceives her own story. 

Northanger Abbey (1817)

At its heart Northanger Abbey is a gothic satire, and while it’s enjoyable for any reader, the greater your knowledge of the gothic tradition, the more you’ll gain with Austen’s sly digs and parodying of gothic novels, popular when she was writing. One of two novels only published after her death (along with Persuasion), it’s arguably the most fun of Austen’s work, potentially because it’s also the one where she most openly laughs at her characters. Her naive, young protagonist, Catherine, uses novels and fairy tales to try and make sense of the world until she learns how to be the heroine of her own story.

Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Moving on to the slightly more melancholy of Austen’s books and starting with the most famous of those, and also one that’s a bit of a bridge between her more witty work, and her more unusual novels. Originally published anonymously, this may not be her funniest, or most romantic book but it’s beautifully well-rounded and has a little bit of all the reasons we love Austen. The coming-of-age story of two sisters, Marianne and Elinor, as they have to move from a large estate to a small cottage, there’s sisterly love, engaging love stories, gentle wit, and a lot of heart. 

Mansfield Park (1814)

Mansfield Park is the Austen novel that most splits opinion; for some it’s her masterpiece, for some it’s her odd one out, lacking in the heart and warmth of the others. Part of the difficulty lies with the heroine, Fanny Price, who is an anti-Lizzy – she’s introverted and straightforward with a strict moral code that could be interpreted as a little killjoy-esque – but she’s revealed to be able to read people far more accurately than you’d think. The novel explores ideas of what is valued; is it charm or actual goodness, is it money or what you do with it. A more serious, moral book, it’s a slow burner that rewards re-reads. 

Persuasion (1818)

My overwhelming urge was to put this first on the list, as it’s my personal favourite, but I don’t think I would love it so much if I had come to it without having read and enjoyed others first. In my opinion, Persuasion is the most romantic of Austen’s novel which ends in an absolutely swoon-worthy letter, but it’s also possibly the most sincere. Our heroine Anne is older than most of Austen’s main characters, and used to disappointment, but her development, and that of her love interest, Captain Wentworth, is, for most, one of Austen’s most satisfying. 

Bonus Reading: While these are Austen’s full, completed novels, she also wrote a lot of marginalia and other vignettes, as well as a short novel Austen never submitted for publication. Now available as Lady Susan, it’s a darkly funny story of a beautiful widow in her 30s who enjoys toying with men for her own entertainment, and what happens when she descends on her brother and sister in law with her teenage daughter in tow. Or there’s Love and Friendship, a novel Austen wrote when she was fourteen. Thought to have been written to entertain her family, it’s a parody of romantic novels and it’s fascinating to be able to see the start of her sparkly wit and disdain for romantic cliches. 

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