I wish people took Austen seriously

30 March 2017 In English, Literature

Recently I thought it would be a good idea to read something in French, to improve my French. (Seems like a no-brainer.) I dug up Le rouge et le noir, which I read in Polish a long time ago and loved. I also left Le Père Goriot lying around, planning to read it next, and this one was immediately snatched by my boyfriend who is now sacrificing hours of precious sleep over it.

So one evening we were doing this “intellectual couple” thing, both reading our French classics before bedtime, and my boyfriend mentioned he saw online a list compiled by William Somerset Maugham (<3), of ten books that in his opinion were the greatest of all literature. LIKE, THE BEST. Actually it’s a whole literary work containing essays about each book and apparently when they proposed an idea of such a work to him, Maugham was naturally disinclined, because how on Earth can you choose just ten books out of this sea of goodness out there. Finally he did write it, though, and here’s what he chose:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal
  4. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  9. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
  10. War and Peace by Tolstoy

We were feeling very smug about both Le rouge… and Le Père Goriot being there and us reading these two simultaneously, and happily nerdily making plans about what to read next out of this splendid list. And then I couldn’t help noticing that Pride and Prejudice was shining, smiling and waving to me from the top of the list!

I said to my boyfriend, now will you read Pride and Prejudice?
He said, No i won’t!


I mentioned already here on the blog that I’m a great fan of Jane Austen. I once read a beautiful essay (actually a cycle of lectures for university students) by E.M. Forster, entitled Aspects of the novel, where he analyses different technical aspects of writing a novel: how a writer constructs a plot, creates characters, etc. It was a long time ago, but among the few things that stuck in my head was the praise that he lavished on Austen’s characters, saying that nowhere perhaps can we find people that are so observantly portrayed, so alive, so “round” – layered, complicated, multi-dimensional, could be easily imagined to go on with their lifes outside of the book – in short, so much like real people. Couldn’t agree more!

There’s another thing that I personally like about Austen extremely much – her use of language. Her style, to my taste, is impeccable. There’s not one word too much or too little. Perfect balance between form and content. That’s why, in my fonder moments, I like to compare her to Mozart :-). There’s also this Mozart-like quality to her writing that she uses a “template” that was very popular in her days – a romance novel in three volumes, apparently the perfect size for a book in a circulating library – but she makes maximal use of this template, pushes it to the edge and loads it full of goodies. If all you read is the few sentences on the back of the book (or if you have watched the movie with Keira Knightley…) you may well think it’s just a banal “boy meets girl”* story… but actually the book is a treasure trove of extremely observant and honest reflections on human nature, written in this perfect, elegant, flowing English and with a healthy dose of sarcasm. I just cannot recommend it enough!

I quite like the image of the authoress herself – in an age where all a woman was supposed to do was get married as soon as possible (this bitter truth appears not once, not twice on the pages of her novels), she was brave and creative enough to get herself interested in something else than running a household, cultivate her passion and turn it into a job, and finally refuse an offer of a comfortable marriage and go on with her writing as a spinster (worst status you could have as a woman back then, and Jane Austen’s family wasn’t that well off, if I remember right). She must have been very honest with herself, which adds extra credit to all the observations in her books.

*actually it would be “girl meets boy”, as Austen always wrote from a female perspective

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