As a sixth-form student way back, I was helped to discover Jane Austen. I loved what I discovered. I loved the precision of the language, the clever, almost sly way she told us so much about a character by a few words spoken. The limited social focus, on upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class early 19th century people, in particular the underemployed women who could not pursue a career, were expected to leave estate management to men and had servants to do the cooking and care for the children, did not bother me. If all literature had been that way, it would have bothered me a lot, but it wasn’t. Jane Austen was very good at what she did.
“Persuasion”, her last novel, always appealed to me. “Pride and Prejudice” is much better known, but it seems to me that as with many first novels, it’s just a bit too personal and some characters, like Mr D’Arcy’s appalling sisters, are caricatured. “Persuasion” and “Emma” were my favourites.
In a way, Jane Austen, like any famous dead writer, now suffers from the fame. We know all her novels have happy endings, so that reduces the dramatic tension, and anyway, how many likely to read this book or “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t know something of the plot already?
A popular game with writers who died quite young is to speculate on how they might have developed. You can’t be proved wrong. One thing I notice about “Persuasion” is that there’s a hint of social criticism. The heroine’s stupidly narrow and snobbish father has a title but is clearly meant to seem inferior to the rough-hewn, weather-beaten naval officers of modest origins he looks down on. I remember our teacher in the sixth form commenting that you could read “Pride and Prejudice” without realising there was a gruelling war going on. That would be impossible with “Persuasion”, set just after the Napoleonic Wars had ended and full of naval officers and references to military action. Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forrester it is not, but when a naval officer remarks that a quiet and bookish colleague had proved himself in action, it’s entirely credible.
Despite the hint of criticism of social norms, like other Jane Austen heroines, Anne does not rebel against the norms. In typically Austen style, there is the merest hint of something different in the recognition that naval officers in war might rise from very humble beginnings (more humble than she shows, because unlike in the army at this time, promotion from the ranks was by no means impossible).
Now imagine this is not a famous text, but something by new writer J. Nostyn. There’s just about enough action to give it a faint hope, but only just enough. There’s too much dialogue. Worse, the author offends against the injunction to show, not tell, for she spends nearly a page telling us what kind of a man Sir Walter is (though she also shows a lot about him as the tale develops). It’s also rather short and an agent might tell her to fill it out a bit. Maybe some flashbacks of the naval battles?
What do you think of Jane Austen? If you quite like her books, which one is the best for you?