Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Personal Austen Rankings

This comes up all the time. What is your favorite book by Jane Austen? Of course they are all amazing but everyone must have their preferences. Here's my sure-to-anger list and why:

1) Persuasion

For me this is Austen at her best. First off I should admit that I adored Cinderella as a child and Persuasion is the ultimate Cinderella story. Watching Anne Elliot, really Jane's most perfect heroine, bloom into such deserved happiness is one of the most fabulously cathartic experiences literature has to offer. I will also admit that I love depressing stories (despite what one might assume based on the thoroughly happy tale I just wrote) and there is A LOT of melancholy in this story. It's difficult not to attribute it to the circumstances of Austen's life while she was writing it. For that reason, this is an extraordinarily personal tale, as close to the writer as we ever get in her fiction.

2) Northanger Abbey

This book is such a remarkable delight to read. Henry Tilney, after Mr. Darcy of course, is my favorite Austen hero and Catherine Moreland has to be the sweetest heroine she ever created. This was the first book I ever read of Jane Austen's, so it holds a special place for me in that respect, and it still makes me laugh aloud every time I read it. I get a silly grin on my face whenever I read Austen (it just makes me really happy) and it's at its biggest when I read Northanger Abbey.

3) Mansfield Park

This is Austen's most ambitious work and her most flawed novel (the attempt in and of itself is remarkable). So much more complex than her other stories, Mansfield Park depicts a rather frightening world of ambition, lust, and folly. This book is much more than a romance: it's deep social philosophy, much more akin to George Elliot's work than Austen's other novels. In Mansfield Park we see the remarkable heights of Austen's potential. It's a book that inspires awed respect.

4) Pride & Prejudice

This is the perfect romance: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet personify true love. Of course its appealing. Every time I pick up this book I know I shall laugh, cry, and feel triumphant (sometimes all in the course of one page). Pride and Prejudice is a highly emotional story and the reader becomes fully engaged in the dramatic roller coaster that forms the plot. This is why I think so many revere this tale - it gets you about as close as anyone can come to perfect happiness. Vicariously, we bask for a moment in Darcy and Elizabeth's glory. It's terribly gratifying.

5) Emma

Now I have to move into defensive mode and say why I put these last two books at the end of this list instead of just declaring what I love them. Emma is wonderful but this story has just never grabbed my imagination to the same degree as the others. I suppose this is because I'm a spoiled brat myself and Emma's faults too closely resemble my own. It's very painful when your too-good opinion of yourself takes a beating, to that I can attest, but all Emma's happy ending teaches me is that, though there may be some trials along the journey, I am sure to get my way in the end. This is the only one of Austen's books that doesn't demand I try to be a better person.

6) Sense and Sensibility

After having read all of Austen aloud to my husband last year, I must acknowledge that this is the worst written of Austen's book. Sense and Sensibility is a wonderful story but the writing is choppier and more contorted than her later work. I wish she could have done another draft of this one, just to smooth out the language. I adore the dynamic between Elinor and Marianne but think that Austen had a hard time working with two heroines. Notice she never attempted to do so again.

So there you are. Please argue with me: this entire exercise is totally arbitrary and demands it. I love debating Austen.

Note added 12/5/09: I just began A Truth Universally Acknowledged (which, so far, seems an attempt to raise Austen to the level of a divinity) and came across the following quote in Susannah Carson's intro which is very relevant to this post: "Some readers are certain there is a fixed hierarchy and take no greater pleasure than in defending their choices and converting opponents. Others find the question as impertinent and irrelevant as if they had been asked to pick a favorite child." I like to think that I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.


  1. Sense and Sensibility isn't well written!?!?! Since when? It's my favorite Austen, after Pride & Prejudice of course. Then comes Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park. I try not to, but I really hate Fanny Price. Maybe Henry Crawford is a cad but she should still marry him - according to the times, it's her duty to stop burdening her family.

  2. Of course Sense & Sensibility is well written, just not as well as her other novels. I too love this story but try reading it aloud and you'll see what I mean.

    Little harsh on poor Fanny! The reason she works as an Austen heroine is because she's willing to reject a marriage proposal of convenience and hold out for a marriage of love. Would you tell Elizabeth Bennet that she should have accepted Mr. Collins? Maybe Henry Crawford is a more presentable man than Collins but Austen has far more tolerance for folly than immorality. Had Fanny accepted Crawford we could not respect her. Whatever terrible fate awaited her for so compromising herself would be deserved.

  3. I hear what you're saying and I try to like Fanny but I just can't help it - she drives me crazy. I can't get passed how much she annoys me and it pretty much ruins the entire Mansfield Park experience for me.

    I read a chapter or two of Sense & Sensibility aloud, as suggested. Not smooth at all. It kills me to admit it.

  4. Not sure I can help you feel for Fanny but maybe it would help to think of her as a younger sibling or cousin who gets picked on a lot - maybe they annoy you too sometimes but you love them anyway. Don't know if that will help but I tried.

  5. Okay, so I'm finally responding - but I don't feel collected enough to make it really long (though you think Emma is saying it's okay to be spoiled and immature? Really? I mean, so does this blogger:, who says pretty much the same thing - but I've always thought her reform is both genuine and touching).

    1) Emma. I too identify with Emma strongly, but as I think she does reform and mature, I like the story a lot. Plus, I really think Austen is at her most artistically strong here - reaching heights of subtlety and polish never seen before, even if the raw emotion is more muted.

    2) Mansfield Park. I adore Fanny. And I think this one is only slightly less polished than Emma - as it's the other one to be nearly completely composed at once, and published during Austen's lifetime.

    2) Pride and Prejudice. Well, I hate the fandom, but I did read the book three times in a row in a month the first time I read it.

    2) Persuasion. Really - it's just gorgeous. And sad and happy and beautiful. And people need to stop including those bloody cancelled chapters - Austen cut them for a reason! (I mean, in the films - I do want them in the text, just as an appendix).

    2) Northanger Abbey - it's so fun and funny and sweet.

    2) Sense and Sensibility - it used to be my least favorite, but ever since Hattie Morahan came around, it's jumped up to second.

    And yes, I did just put all five of the other books at number 2 - I refuse to try to rank them further than "Favorite" and "just below Favorite."

  6. Ha ha. It is so silly to rank these. I love all these books and it was very difficult to actually compose this list. I was mostly just trying to nettle people (did it work?).

    It's not that there isn't genuine reform in Emma, it's more she gets everything she wants. She suffers, but only intensely for a couple of days and then all the natives of Highbury just sort of fall in line and behave exactly as she would wish them to. Now, when you are very indulged young woman, like myself, you walk away from this story with a strong conviction that things are pretty much going to always go your way. They always before have, haven't they? Usually. Emma matures a lot in the story but she doesn't fundamentally alter. It's why I've always considered this book a coming of age novel - the only actually trip Emma takes is to Box Hill but its a pretty pivotal moment and I have argued (back in my college days) that this is enough of a journey to fulfill the requirements for a bildungsroman. Not sure my teacher bought it, but I still think its a valuable way to view the book.

    Inspired by the list posted at Austenesque Reviews a few weeks back, I have just ordered a whole bunch of Emma sequels (the first arrived yesterday) so I should be pretty fixated on this story over the next week or so. I hope you'll join the conversation.

  7. Well, I completely see it as a coming of age novel, and am glad to hear you think she does mature. I'm not sure why one would complain that she is happy in the end - isn't that part of Jane Austen's charm?

    As for altering - I think the reason Emma is such a wonderful character is that she shouldn't alter - she needs to mature, become more selfless, but she is a loving, kind, loyal, and brave person at heart.

    I look forward to the Emma sequels - though I'm curious to know if The Importance of Being Emma is one of them (cause it has tons of sex - I kind of want to read it, but am not impressed at how grocery-store-romancey it is in that respect. Though I will say that as a guy who enjoys Twilight and just saw New Moon, I should be careful about the quality adjectives I throw around. I would like to point out, however, that as I also just read The Romance of the Forest, by Ann Radcliffe, the kind of Mary Sue gushy self tormenting angsty teen drama romance love love love bad writing genre is not Twilight's fault - it's been around a long time - and I don't mind Twilight nearly as much as Harry Potter - ooh, there's a good way for me to nettle people :-)

    Sorry for the run-on sentence.

  8. It's not really a complaint that she's happy, it's more that from my very personal perspective (and this is totally subjective) Emma doesn't inspire me to better myself while each one of Austen's other novels (and a good deal of her other writings) do. I love Emma - read it at least once a year - but I had to come up with some reason why most of Austen's other novels appeal to me more and this was the best I could do.

    The Importance of Being Emma I explicitly avoided, having heard it was racy. I'm going to read the Mrs. Elton in America stories, Later Days in Highbury, and A Visit to Highbury and I hope to put a dent in this over the holiday.

    I have such a hard time reading Radcliffe. Her stories just go on and on and the heroes and heroines are so insipid. How did you find Romance of the Forest?

    I much prefer Harry Potter (which I actually kind of adore) to Twilight (which I've actually never read, having extremely strong prejudices against the idea of non blood sucking vampires). How's that for arbitrary?

  9. Oooh, the Mrs. Elton stories by Diana Birchall are great! I've not been able to procure the ones about America, but the two others I've found online are so funny, and often sweet.

    I found Romance exceedingly horrid. Truely horrid, I say! ;-) But really, it reminds me of nothing more than angsty teen Mary Sue fanfic - the writing quality included (it's competent, but I really don't think it's very good). I had a similar reaction as you did to Mysteries of Udolpho - I really should finish it, but I'd read like 10 chapters and the heroine had just been orphaned - I was like - "Have you never read a good orphan fic? You always kill off the parents immediately!"

    Hmmm. Well, see, if Harry Potter weren't so popular, I'd probably like it a lot better - I actually object most strongly to Harry's constant puffing up as being "selfless" and "kind" when he really seems more "lazy" and "self-absorbed." I find secondary characters like Luna and Hermione much more interesting and admirable. And I, for one, hate vampires, but enjoy both Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer - how's that for contradictory? I think what I enjoy about both is the way they work in moral issues (though more romance than morals in Twilight, albeit I firmly insist that the morals are there).

  10. Harry Potter is a complete idiot but that is part of what makes him so lovable - and so frustrating. It's all dumb luck. I think they're all fabulous characters - Luna is a particular favorite, as is Snape.

    I could never get through Udolpho: way too painful. It's one of the very few books I can say that about.

    I actually sat down and read all three of the Mrs. Elton stories this morning - not at all what I intended to do. I'm not quite sure what I think of them yet and most of this difficulty lies with Mrs. Elton in America, a very surprising story. I'm going to let it all seep in for a few day before commenting except to say that she got the order of events wrong at Box Hill, because I don't want to include that detail in my post but can't help noting it.

  11. Mmm, I do like Luna. Daffy sweetness is always a plus. And I think I enjoy movie Harry better - he seems to acknowledge his luck and help more readily - plus, he's not quite as much of a jerk in the later stories.

    Huh - I've not read the final America story - how does she get the event sequence wrong?

  12. It's in In Defense of Mrs. Elton - when they are at Box Hill, she has Mr. Weston presenting his "MA" riddle before Emma mocks Miss Bates. I of the three tales I liked The Courtship of Mrs. Elton the best. Mrs. Elton in America is a very interesting story but it's such a completely different world than Jane Austen's -it's hard to recognize the woman as Augusta Elton.

  13. Mmmm. I'll have to reread that one. That is rather silly, easily checked as a mistake.

    Have you read this, also by Birchall? I think it's hilarious -

  14. I can agree with Mrs. Elton (aka Diana Birchall) that in "Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma [Ms. Birchall] does worse things to the residents of Pemberley than ever she does to me." I'm not sure they are actually worse (thank god no one has yet seen fit to have Lizzy enslaved by Comanches) but both make me equally uncomfortable.