Last semester, I took a single-author course for my English major on Jane Austen. I’ve read most every page Austen has written (okay, that might be an exaggeration, but I studied a whole lot of her works, even some obscure ones and partial drafts.) They’re all great, and it’s safe to say Austen was a brilliant writer (not a shocking revelation). 19th century literature isn’t for everybody, but Austen’s novels are accessible, and I think anybody might enjoy them. Jane Austen’s novels are all unique and innovative, but now that I’ve read them all, I feel comfortable enumerating my favorites. Here is my ranking of Jane Austen’s novels:
- Pride and Prejudice: No surprise here, but I am a fan of P&P. I first read it when I was about 14, then revisited it in the last year (which I blogged about here). Studying it in the classroom revealed the complexities of the text, which I had missed in my tender pre-teen years. However, the fairytale romance and witty humor is still there, and for somebody who is interested in reading Jane Austen for fun, Pride and Prejudice is certainly the place to start.
- Emma: Another famous Austen novel, Emma is playful and fun (with perhaps the most dynamic heroine of all of Austen’s works). I might be partial to Emma because of the 90s film adaptation, Clueless, but Austen’s spunky central character, mild social satire, and courtship plot are at their apex in this novel. If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and you want more Austen, I think Emma is the perfect follow-up.
- Mansfield Park: This book is such a diamond in the rough! Mansfield Park is often overlooked, but I think it is some of Austen’s best work. Perhaps the funniest of all of her novels, and the most subversive, Mansfield Park features an unconventional and shy young heroine who falls for a suitor she is forbidden from wooing. Although it might be helpful to be familiar with Austen’s style before reading this book, I find it a fresh and funny read.
- Persuasion: I love the title of this book, and I really wanted to like Persuasion, but I just didn’t fall for it as hard as I did the other novels. I enjoyed the themes of lost love, regret, and second chances, and I might revisit this book in a few years; perhaps if I read it out of the classroom context, I would enjoy it more. It was one of the last books we read in the semester, so maybe I was just Austened out. Nonetheless, for a J.A. newbie, Persuasion probably isn’t the place to start.
- Sense and Sensibility: I have come to appreciate Sense and Sensibility, becuase I’ve read it twice. When I read it for fun a couple summers ago, I hated it; Sense and Sensibility is not a particularly romantic novel. In fact, I think it’s a little sad. I like the characters, and upon studying the novel I realized that it holds an important place in the English literary canon; but in all honesty, the Austen’s other novels are more pleasurable to read.
- Northanger Abbey: I enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey, but it’s last on my list because it is a bit of a niche-market book. If you love Jane Austen, or you know a lot about gothic literature and the history of the novel, this book will probably appeal to you. However, because Northanger Abbey is so deeply situated in the period in which it was written, it is less accessible for a modern audience.