Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why I re-read Jane Austen

Frances B.

I am not a re-reader. It’s nothing personal against the books I have read, but there are too many other good books to be discovered. Plus, I confess I’m also one of those readers who has a goal to make each year, which only natural disasters or a perpetually empty Kindle battery can deter. But I realize there is one exception to my fastidiousness: Jane Austen.

Without meaning to, I’ve re-read at least one of her novels each year. This time around, I recently finished Pride and Prejudice, and despite how many times I read it over the years, it’s reassuring to know that it’s just as good as the very first time. It’s like going back to your hometown: While you may have changed, your favorite haunts have not (mostly). Yet more than that, I re-read Jane Austen because each reading exposes new facets to the characters and the story, layers of meaning that only time and a bit more experience will reveal.

When I first read Pride and Prejudice, for instance, I was fifteen and thought Elizabeth Bennet could do No Wrong. I was camping at the time, and after quickly discovering I was not cut out for roughing it after all, I was hiding in the car from my family and many more mosquitoes. Luckily I brought along a library copy of P&P, and I spent most of that long weekend obsessed with what happened next to Darcy and Elizabeth. At Netherfield, when Elizabeth takes Darcy down a notch by retorting, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any,” her chutzpah immediately catapulted her to the top of my favorite characters list.

However, this time around, I was more sensitive to cracks in Elizabeth’s character. I never really noticed before how severe she is to Charlotte for choosing to marry Mr. Collins. She can’t accept that her friend is settling: “She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of marriage was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins, was a most humiliating picture!” If this were set in the present day, I think Elizabeth would’ve ignored Charlotte’s texts, emails, and Facebook posts once her friend got married. Her distaste speaks to an unsympathetic streak in Elizabeth that also shows her own privilege in choosing a husband.

There seems to be way more to discuss with each re-reading. I haven’t even begun to discuss how sad and dysfunctional Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage truly is, or just how taken in with Elizabeth Darcy is at Netherfield. But I think that’s why I’ll still pause everything and spend some time re-reading Jane Austen. For a writer who professed to make only a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” as her life’s work, there’s always something deeper to consider.

The Royal Crescent in Bath,
where Jane Austen briefly lived (and famously disliked)

Photo by Frances

About The Author

Frances B.

Frances is an associate publicity manager in Cambridge's New York office. Follow her @CambridgeUP_NY....

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