Why Did I Wait So Long to Read Jane Austen?

Joshua Raff on His Pandemic Jane-Quest

Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice 2005, Mr Bennet with his daughters The text of this article is replicated with the kind permission of LitHub. The full text is available here.  

I came to Jane Austen late. As a lifelong reader, I do not have a simple explanation for this omission, but when my family decided to read Pride and Prejudice as a family reading project soon after the pandemic forced us into isolation, I jumped at the chance to fill in the gap in my literacy.

Once I found my footing in her language, I was hooked. I put aside the other books I had been reading and devoted myself to Jane. I followed Pride and Prejudice with Emma and then Persuasion in quick succession. Each one was a true page-turner, great storytelling, with the added heft of sharp social commentary in language that is elegant, intricate, and comforting at the same time, a combination that seemed lacking in the other books I had been reading during the pandemic. And as the father of two daughters, I felt a special kind of admiration for Austen’s young heroines, who seem somehow of their age and modern at the same time. Particularly Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who fits but does not fit, who reads, who observes with some humor the people around her and the world they inhabit. And who in one of everyone’s favorite scenes, stands up to the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in a way even more modern heroines would be proud to emulate.

Why it had taken me so long to read Austen? Was it the male bias of my education? Did I buy into the perception of her as too feminine, “too girly” as Nat Newman puts it (“Men Who Love Jane Austen,” Overland, December 15, 2016)? Is our reading that gendered? And what is it about her novels that offers both escape and solace for these stressful times?

Before I started on my Jane-quest, I’d known even less about Austen and her life than I did about her books. And I did not appreciate the degree to which she has engendered an obsessive fanbase. Witness the legions of Janeites of all ages across geographic boundaries and cultures, all taken by stories set almost entirely in the stultifying and seemingly narrow world of the upper classes of Regency England. She is popular in Japan, for example, where there are even manga versions of her books, according to Austen scholar Catherine Golden. In addition to her Japanese fanbase, her stories have been relocated to India (Bride and Prejudice) and to contemporary Los Angeles (Clueless, a family favorite), to mention only a few, and have even been recast as vampire and zombie stories. There are Jane Austen Societies all over the world celebrating all things Jane.

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Stepping back from the full-time practice of law—Joshua Raff explores and writes about food and cooking, travel, wine, music, books and art in its various forms to consider and comment on legal and social issues. He received a M.F.A. degree in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in May 2019 and lives in New York City with his wife and kids.

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