Jane Austen: A Beginner’s Guide, by Rob Abbott
I am by no means a beginner to Jane Austen, having read her books and books about them starting in high school and continuing since then. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to see a book like this, as it demonstrates the clear way that Austen has been viewed as a great author and her texts as among the most important novels of the English literature tradition and how this can be a bit intimidating to many readers who need to be reassured sometimes about their worth as readers in taking on such works for enjoyment. This book is short but certainly worthwhile in expressing opinions and judgments not only about Austen’s writing but also about some of the writing about Austen that has proliferated in the last few decades. We who are fans of her literature can all consider it rather providential that her novels made the cut when the English great books were being listed, as it is quite possible that they may have been far more obscure had they awaited the much later and much more troublesome discovery of feminist theorists as was the case for many other women writers of her age.
This book is a bit less than 100 pages and is divided into nine chapters. The book begins with instructions on how to use the book in beginning to read the author in question and handle difficult texts as well as unfamiliar critical language. After that comes the author’s justifications for reading Austen, namely her relevance, her humor, and the enjoyment her books bring (1). This is followed by some advice on how to approach Austen’s irony, use of free indirect discourse, and satire (2). After this comes a brief biography of Austen’s life from her elusive existence to her childhood, time in Bath, offer of marriage, and her life in Chawton and death in Winchester (3). The next chapter then details the social scene of Austen’s novels (4), including matters of class, marriage, and the Napoleonic Wars. Then comes two chapters that deal with Austen’s early novels (Northanger Abbey, Pride & Prejudice, and Sense & Sensibility) (5) and then her later complete novels (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion) (6). Two more chapters then look at early critical approaches (7) to her novels as well as modern critical approaches (8). The book then ends with an encouragement to read even more Jane Austen (always a good thing) (9) as well as visit websites and go to various places, after which there is is a glossary, chronology, suggestions for further reading, and an index.
One of the things that beginners would do well to remember about Jane Austen is that her novels are perfectly acceptable to enjoy. Austen’s writings–as is the case with any genuinely great literature–are capable of being enjoyed and are designed to be enjoyed on a variety of levels. The more levels that one can enjoy as a reader, the better equipped one is to respect and appreciate Austen as a writer. And this is a lesson that is easy to transfer to other writings that we may encounter as well. Those writers who provide depth and layers of understanding that require careful understanding and interpretation but who provide surface level writing capable of great enjoyment and pleasure do us a great favor in demonstrating the worth of that which we are familiar with but have not yet exhausted in terms of its worth. When we see that some books are worth reading over and over again, we may better understand what makes them so much better than other books that are not worth reading at all, and also to note what makes books about such books (as is the case here) worth reading and appreciating at least once as well. That this book points the reader not only to Austen’s own works, including her letters and juvenilia, but also to notable works about Austen’s works suggests that this book is a useful resource for those who are beginning their enjoyment and study of Austen’s novels.