I just read my first ever Jane Austen – and this is what I learnt in the process

Reading’s a funny old thing isn’t it? (She says, lighting a pipe and putting on slippers). You find your groove; you find the sagas or the mysteries or the girls who write stories sitting in the kitchen sink, and you find yourself in the finding of these spaces. It’s a sort of chicken and egg thing; a circular, self-reflexive process. You read yourself into spaces, spaces which don’t exist until you read yourself into them. Jo and her chopped hair. Daddy, my daddy. Bernhilda tipping the ink all over herself (this last one is a bit niche, but I’m aware there’s a substantial amount of you who will get this and I admire you all greatly for that). All of these moments exist in a sort of limbo until you read them and give life to them. And it’s through your reading that you find out who you are. You find the moments that matter to you and that make you who you are. And those moments start to cumulatively work inside of you; they swell and grow and help you to become the person that you always had the potential to be. It’s just that those books gave you a little bit of a shove in the right direction.

So what happens to the books that you don’t read? What happens to the authors that you know of – Hardy, Beckett, Atwood – authors who hold a very specific cultural place in the world and figure in your world and yet  – don’t. Goodnight Moon. Green Eggs and Ham. Anne of Green Gables. All books that I know and don’t know. And, in the case of Anne of Green Gables in particular, books that I’ve tried but just – haven’t – worked for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it but I couldn’t even get past the first chapters of Anne. And what does that mean? What does that do to me as a reader?

Until fifteen minutes ago, I’d never read a Jane Austen.

And yet I knew Jane Austen. I knew who she was. I had an idea of Jane Austen and it was an idea shaped by a guy coming out of a pond, a film with Anne Hathaway and the phrase “Reader, I married him” which is from Jane Eyre and nothing to do with Jane Austen in the slightest….

So. I read Northanger Abbey.

I did this for several reasons. Initially it was to read the unread portion of literature that my writing and research touches upon. I work in children’s literature (because it’s, you know, ace), but children’s literature exists in a very specific sort of space. It exists in an opposition to ‘adult literature’ (because if it didn’t, then it’d be, you know, just ‘literature’) and it exists in a space that shifts with the interaction of each and every reader. My concept of children’s literature is not yours. It can’t be. My childhood was not yours and so, you might not know of Misty of Chincoteague but for me it’s epochal. That’s both a blessing and a disguise. I’m conscious when I blog and write about children’s literature that I’m writing it through the filter of myself. I try not to; I force myself to be as holistic and inclusive as I can, but it’s there. It will always be there.

My Jane Austen experiment was to pull me out of the confines of my own established readership and to help me gain more of an idea of my own work in the area of distant reading. Perspective is a great thing. And sometimes you have to be a bit severe and force yourself to let it happen. Distant reading is an amazing process that I’m madly intrigued by but also one that feels very fixed within an academic environment. I wanted to test how it felt for me and my reading, academic or otherwise.

Northanger Abbey has taught me that I really don’t like dense text (I need space in a story, somehow, I need to breathe and find the room for me within it). It has taught me that, perhaps, Jane Austen and I still aren’t quite on the same page yet. It has taught me that I love a sentence with a full stop, and not one that goes on for three hundred pages before pausing.

It has taught me a little more about this author that I thought I knew and yet, quite clearly, didn’t.

And it’s this latter point that I find the most exciting. In blogging, writing and reading children’s literature, I get comfortable. It’s wrong but I do. I seek the books that make me happy, that I think will allow me to write about them, and I hunt for the books that need me to make them live. I am a selfish reader. I make no bones about that. I want to matter to a text. I want to give it life. I want my reading to lift the text of the page and pull it into a different space.

Sometimes, I think, if we read the same old for ever then we become comfortable. Relaxed. Lazy, maybe. We expect the twist of a sentence and the introduction of a secondary motif. We expect the resolution when we’re used to having it.

I don’t think I’m best friends with Jane Austen yet. I suspect that when it comes to literature we inhabit very different spaces. But what I do think is that reading her – in forcing myself to engage with an author who is so other to myself and my reading – I’ve been able to touch a space of literature that is not my own. I’m grateful to her for that. I’m grateful for the light this process shines back on my own reading. I’ve spoken before on this blog about the importance of understanding what and who you are as a reader. Challenges like this enable that understanding. Try it if you can. Walk to the other end of the library. Pick up a different magazine at the shop (I recommend Canal Boat Monthly even though I’m still not quite sure what a windlass is). Fall out of your groove, even if it’s just for a brief moment.

And then, when you’re done, fall back in.

(Sorry Jane.x)

12 thoughts on “I just read my first ever Jane Austen – and this is what I learnt in the process

  1. I’ve done this before and it really can be valuable, both as a writer and reader: in my teens I steamed ahead with reading influential classics of all stripes, especially if they’d influenced other works that I loved, but certainly not exclusively. It’s comfort-zone pushing in many respects and not always enjoyable, but often eye-opening and unexpected in the most interesting ways.

    It may just be me (and I will readily admit that I share a few stylistic quirks with Austen in my own writing) but I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to come back to her after a long spell for a reread. The first time I read Austen I attempted to engage with the narrative as is was; the second time around her narrative voice become truly apparent. Rereading Pride and Prejudice for me sometimes feels weirdly like reading a long, entertaining letter from a clever and witty, but slightly introverted and all-too human acquaintance; the sort of person that you don’t know intimately, but enough to know that when they were writing exact x sentence, the eyebrow was arched *just so*.

    (I wouldn’t recommend Northanger Abbey again though, as that has a strong element of homage-paying/spoofing of Ann Radcliffe, who, er…goes on a bit? A lot? I love myself some ridiculous meandering gothic fiction, but Radcliffe really does take ALL the proverbial biscuits ever.)

  2. The Ann Radcliffe point is a really good one, and for me opens up a whole other line of thought about books which have to be read within a certain context to really be fully understood.

    I love all Austen, but struggle with Jane Eyre – I know it’s a classic I feel like I should enjoy it, but it just makes my teeth itch. It frustrates me because it should be my bag, but I just can’t bond with it.

  3. I have to be in the mood to read Austen. It’s less the 300-pages-to-one-sentence that puts me off, more the frequent lack of pointers as to who’s speaking in a conversation, thus forcing me to reread a confusing passage before moving on. Having said which, I enjoyed Northanger Abbey, partly because it involved settings in Bath and nearby Bristol — an area I grew up in — and because I’d previously read the granddaddy of Gothick novels, The Castle of Otranto.

    interestingly, Jane was only about six years older than the seventeen-year-old Catherine when she drafted the first version of the novel. I suppose that could make it a classic YA except that it’s a bit too knowing and emotionally detached from the imaginative heroine.

  4. I have been trying to read Northanger Abbey for the past year but I can’t seem to finish it. Which is annoying because I started my own Jane Austen project (reading all her novels in publishing order), and I thought Mansfield Park was the worst and apparently it’s not and now it’s stalled. :/

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