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There’s something about Jane

‘I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp.’ Mr. Collins, Pride and Prejudice.


nlike Fanny Price’s uneducated sister, Susan in Mansfield Park, no-one could ever say of Jane Austen that ‘the early habit of reading was wanting’. A fluent reader from the age of eight,

she was devouring adult novels by the time she reached her teens. Today we routinely agonise about which subjects constitute appropriate reading matter for teenagers, but despite being a man of the church, Jane Austen’s indulgent father had no such scruples. He allowed his daughter to read any volume that took her fancy in his extensive library, and consequently Jane’s early reading was extremely eclectic, encompassing history, poetry, books in French, and all the popular novels of the day, many of which contained extremely racy subject matter. Drunkenness, rapes, murders, elopements, adulterous liaisons and bigamous marriages are all legion in 18th century fiction. Writing in 1817, the year of Jane’s death, her favourite brother Henry recalled: ‘It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language’. She read Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Fanny Burney, Laurence Sterne, Ann Radcliffe and Samuel Richardson who was one of her preferred writers. His sprawling novel Sir Charles Grandison was allegedly her favourite: in Northanger Abbey, the ghastly flibbertigibbet Isabella Thorpe calls it ‘an amazing horrid book’. From the age of twelve, Jane was writing prolifically herself.

So how old do you have to be to read Jane Austen? I was about thirteen when I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in a rust-coloured hardback which my mum had received as a school prize in 1952. By the time I studied Emma for my English A-level, I was working my way through the other novels and forming a lifelong habit. I’ve always considered Jane Austen a great writer because you can find new things to take from her work at any time of life. I read her novels first as love stories, but when I read them these days, it is for the minutely-observed details and utterings which bring her characters into sharp relief; the often wicked jokes; the economy and precision of her language; and for the familiar joy of being in her extraordinarily gifted hands.

But at least one Jane Austen expert is wary of reading her too young. ‘While you can (and should!) re-read Austen at different stages of your life, I’m wary of giving her to younger readers’, says John Mullan, Professor of English at University College, London and author of the hugely engaging What Matters in Jane Austen?. ‘In her favour is a surface appearance of simplicity, but over and over again Austen admirers will tell you that

12 Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013

they didn’t ‘get it’ when they first read her as teenagers. This was my own experience, I confess’.

But there’s a paradox here. In many ways, Austen’s novels are teenager’s books. Mullan does acknowledge this. ‘Her connection to younger readers should be that all her heroines (except in Persuasion) are pretty young themselves, and many of her novels are concerned with teen angst and teen passions’. Against popular perceptions of Austen as a middle-aged spinster novelist, it’s salutary to remind ourselves that Elinor Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility is nineteen; and her sister Marianne, seventeen. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is eighteen; whilst the eponymous heroine of Emma is twenty. Austen’s youngest heroine of all - Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – is just seventeen years old when she becomes engaged to Henry Tilney. And in Pride & Prejudice, a novel which Jane Austen wrote when she herself was in her early twenties, Elizabeth Bennet is just twenty when she meets Mr Darcy; scarcely older than most of the heroines of today’s YA romances. Pride and Prejudice mocks teen folly in the shape of Lydia, Kitty and Mary Bennet, but it also says ‘Beware! You don’t know your own heart’. It is definitely the novel to start on, but I have not encouraged my daughters to read it yet (the

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