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Wisconsin Regional Book Group: Reading Jane Austen

This post is contributed by Phyllis Menne, Chair of Madison and Western WI.


From February to September, we read and discussed Austen’s six adult novels in the chronological order they were written. The discussion was partially influenced by Kathryn Sutherland’s 2020 AGM plenary talk that described Austen’s teenage writing as “a wild mind and a disciplined eye” and proposal that her teenage writings were reflected in Austen’s adult fiction. Prior to Sutherland’s presentation, some of our members had participated in a read-out-loud of Austen’s teenage writings. We discovered the clever, rambunctious, and unpredictable characters in Edgar & Emma, Henry & Elizabeth, The Visit and Lesley Castle. Sutherland’s perspective and our prior reading of Austen’s teenage writing tapped our curiosity, and we came together for a deep dive into Austen’s six adult novels.


Sutherland proposed that both Austen’s early writing and her adult novels share common factors, one of which is “comic imitations or parodies of her day.” Austen’s use of situational comedy in The Visit, where Grandmother’s beds are too short for the guest and the dining table had limited chairs so the guest needed to sit on other’s laps, was extremely amusing. Austen’s adult novels are replete with comic imitations -- consider Mr. Collins and Miss Bates -- while Sir Walter Elliot and Mr. Woodhouse were examples of parody of aristocrats of her day. Do others come to mind?


Austen’s early writing portrayed confident, willful and even rebellious young women in Lesley Castle and Catherine, or the Bower -- heroines whose “independence and honesty” prefigures some of Austen’s later female characters. Austen novels gave us independent and honest heroines of Catherine Moreland, Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Eliot each with their elements of rebellion. Which heroine do you prefer?


Austen’s men were not neglected in the discussion -- they were confident, willful, rebellious, independent, honest, and moral...or not so much. In the adult novels, the confidence of Mr. John Knightly or the righteous but redeemed Mr. Darcy or the willful and elusive Frank Churchill or the ever rebellious and dishonorable George Wickham were cloaked in admiration, annoyance or condemnation. Which fella is the most impressive hero?


From Northanger Abbey through Persuasion, the book group’s discussion supported Sutherland’s proposal that the teenage Austen writing skills are evident in the adult novels. For each adult novel, our lively discussions noted Austen’s exemplary writing strategy that weaved heroine and hero characters together despite the obstructions along the way, possibly brought on by their own flaws, other characters, or situational or environmental events. As the plot grows toward resolution, Austen demonstrated a critical intelligence by her multidimensional characters -- each and every one was necessary to move the plot forward to the final resolution. She weaves together her idiosyncratic characters and plot to address issues of her day -- including women’s rights, social issues, economic issues, marriage, and more -- all the while keeping her readers anxious for the heroine and hero to resolve their differences once and for all and live happily ever after.


We have come to an end of months long journey through 20+ years of Austen’s novels. We found great joy in having intense, long conversations about Austen as she grew into a mature writer. We bonded over common realizations that our relative, possibly an aunt or uncle or another family member, reminds us of one of Austen’s notorious characters as well as our choices for our favorite Austen heroine, hero or novel. We ended our journey with a sense that Austen was talking to us personally, that she taught us to be aware of our ability to use our own critical intelligence in our lives. For many of us, Austen’s wisdom and calming influence acted as an antidote to the months of uncertainty during the pandemic and gave some level of balance in our lives.