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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

The Many Ways of Accessing Austen

Yes, Austentatious is a word. In the publishing world at least. There are countless "classic" writers around the world, revered for centuries, read and reread by millions, but there seems to be a special, expansive kind of aura around certain authors. Jane Austen isn't just beloved for her seven novels; she is the source of what seem to be endless film and television adaptations, biographies, modern retellings, novels about reading Jane Austen, Austen-inspired (or, Austentatious) crochet manuals, and memoirs about reading Jane Austen. The genre of fiction alone has its subsets of historical fiction, adaptations, Jane Austen book clubs, and even one novel that features Austen-related time travel. In fact, there are so many Jane Austen fans out there that we even have a book about her fans at the library.

Natalie Jenner's popular novel The Jane Austen Society is perhaps the most recent fictional narrative to tie characters together through a shared fascination with Austen. The WWII-era book tells the story of a group of seemingly quite different people who unite in the effort to preserve Austen's final home at Chawton as a museum dedicated to the world famous author. At its heart, the novel seems to be about the ways in which people from rather various walks of life can find common ground in the words and inventions of an author—but it's not just any author. Again and again, writers of both fiction and memoir seem to return to this question: Why Austen? Why, even as scholars question the "whiteness" of Austen's work and delve into the ties her family had to both abolition and slavery, are so many people inclined to continue reading and finding relevance and resonance in her novels? Why, indeed, are there so many "Janeites"?

While this question has been the inspirational pivot of many a novel (listed below), so, too, has Austen's significance been explored by writers telling their own life stories. Rachel Cohen's 2020 memoir Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels does so in a particularly stirring way. Cohen was a longtime Austen fan, but when her beloved father died (around the same time that she was gave birth to her first child), she found that she could read nothing but five of the novels penned by the great author. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion. The book tackles Cohen's personal trajectory, her relationship to Austen's work, and the sheer wonder of literature: that whether we read certain words once or many, many times, their meaning and impact is inevitably bound in some way to the particular moment, to our frame of mind, to the threads of our own lives with which they happen, at that time, to intertwine. In short, if you read Persuasion eight times, it will carry import both different and the same each time, and it might mean as much to you as the events and people that populate your actual life. Cohen cleverly points out how Austen conveyed this same idea herself, as when Elizabeth reads Darcy's confessional letter multiple times with differing effects in Pride and Prejudice.

As part of addressing how Austen's work played such a significant role in her life during a turbulent personal time, Cohen delves into literary analysis and biographical information, crafting a hybrid memoir. Her melding together of memoir and literary criticism is reminiscent of Katharine Smyth's 2019 All the Lives We Ever Lived, which describes how the author's reading of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse was both a comfort and a revelatory experience as she navigated the grief of losing her father. In these works, literature becomes bound with self-knowledge. As Cohen writes, "An odd thing about an epiphany, a moment of knowing yourself to be yourself, is that it feels at once like a change and like a return." Both memoirs tell of grief and of epiphany—and of the place of significant literary words that repeat and reveal throughout.

I was drawn to Cohen's memoir because it focuses on the way that books that make a a great impression on us are not simply distinct elements in our lives but rather become inseparable from those lives. They become mixed up in our own narratives, threads in our stories. The actual experience of reading an impactful book can become so significant that it is a memory, an occasion, perhaps a plot point of its own. I can still recall the first time I read Pride and Prejudice curled up on a couch in my parents' living room one Novemberthe overriding feeling while I read that as Elizabeth Bennett slowly realized her love of Darcy, I was, in tandem, falling in love with the novel itself. Never before or since have I had such an all-enveloping reading experience. So what is it about Austen? Is it her wit? The delightful delivery of her social commentary? The romance? The plots that are often surprisingly unpredictable? Or is it something that Rachel Cohen, myself, and so many others can write about but still never quite articulate?

If you're curious to delve further into the sheer magnitude of works, both fiction and nonfiction, related to the enduring legacy of Austen, check out the reading list below. CLick on the links to read summaries and request books from our catalog.

Jane Austen Retellings and Related Novels

Writing Jane Austen, Elizabeth Aston

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Mary B, Katherine J. Chen

The Jane Austen Project, Katherine Flynn

The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler

Austenland, Shannon Hale

The Jane Austen Society, Natalie Jenner

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

Emma: a modern retelling, Alexander McCall Smith

Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid

The Austen Escape, Katherine Reay

Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield

Sense & Sensibility, Joanna Trollope

Jane Austen Biographies and Miscellania

Jane Austen: a life, Claire Tomalin

Check out the Jane Austen Society of America's comprehensive pages on adaptations of each Jane Austen novel to discover the sheer wealth of screen versions (both feature films and miniseries), most of which can be requested through Minerva:

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