I graduated from high school believing I hated English Literature. And wasn’t that fond of the Americans, in terms of what was considered classics. I was mainly stuck on Sinclair Lewis, and everyone else except Harper Lee came up short (or very, very long,) and dull. It was disappointing for someone who likes to read pretty much all the time. My brother, who was about 24 just then, told me I’d just been reading all the wrong books. He suggested, among others, Jane Austen.
I realized it’s customary on the internet to wax on about having begun reading at three, to have read Jane Eyre at age eight, and Pride and Prejudice at eleven, and therefore having been absorbed in it all from the beginning, but I didn’t begin reading until six, at eight I was reading Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, and at eleven, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Judy Blume. I read all the 1970s YA there was, and all the murder mysteries, and quite a lot of horror about child ghosts haunting old houses and wells and things.
People are just as shocked to learn I began in such a paltry way as they are to learn I have no college degree. But for me, it was not paltry. It was a young life steeped in reading what I found around me. I can assure you that in the 1970s and early 80s, no child was reading classic Regency and Victorian literature unless they had a fairly unusual set of books on their shelves at home, or a rather enlightened relative to show them the path. It was not ordinary at that particular time to stumble over Wuthering Heights, which is a book I still loathe, but that’s another topic.
Those girls read Frances Hodgson Burnett, I read Ian Fleming, in a set of cheap hard cover books Mom kept in the little bookcase with the sliding doors at the bottom. I did love Louisa May Alcott, and if I’d known how much more sickly sweet prose on the order of Eight Cousins had been written in the late 19th century, I’m sure I’d have covered it all. But I did not, until much later on.
So my brother told me to read Jane Austen. I didn’t know quite where to begin, but where I ended up first was in a tree in Loose Park in Kansas City, with a bag of almond croissants and a new copy of Emma, bought at an overpriced bookstore on the Plaza. I was captivated. And then by Pride and Prejudice, as well. I just read Emma first because I liked the cover better.
When I learned I could see a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring the divine Greer Garson, I sought it out eagerly, and was subsequently deeply disappointed. It was all wrong, strange and anachronistic and parodical. Of course Miss Garson was good in it, as was Laurence Olivier, an actor I’ve always only uncomfortably liked, but then, that too is another topic.
Later on, I learned to appreciate that 1940 adaptation as a Thing of Its Own. I learned the action was deliberately pushed forward thirty years, which explains the sets, costumes, and dances. I knew more about how movies were made in that era, and that this one was meant to follow on the heels of the hugely successful Gone With the Wind. Realizing all this, it stands well on its own terms, and even the story changes mostly make sense. There’s a long, long absurd scene near the end that keeps the movie from being a great, though highly adapted story. But I’ve made my peace with it in a way I have yet to make peace with the 2005 adaptation or any adaptation of Mansfield Park, another Jane Austen novel.
At first I loved only Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I liked, but did not love Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I wanted to like but struggled with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Persuasion just needed me to grow up a bit more before it became one of my favorite novels of all. And Emma Thompson taught me to love Sense and Sensibility by writing a perfectly edited version of it for her 1995 adaptation. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with Austen’s original version that a confident red pen couldn’t fix.
I learned to appreciate Mansfield Park by championing Fanny Price as a worthy heroine, against people, even Jane Austen herself, who found her too good to be liked. I kept rereading it so I could defend my position, and found much more to appreciate in it.
I understand Northanger Abbey for what it is; a very well done pastiche of the gothic novels that were so popular in Austen’s own youth, but I’ll never really like it.
Eventually I read all the Brontes, but see only sister Charlotte as a literary friend. I’ve read Gaskell, Dickens, James, Trollope, who is my 19th century Sinclair Lewis—more able to be satisfied with how it all goes along, though—and quite a lot more from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I still like morality plays only when they are accompanied by a strong dose of humor. I’ll never appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, but I learned that when a Russian wrote the same sort of story set in the same general period of time, I usually enjoyed it.
I like the concept of Sherlock Holmes far more than the execution.
My shelves are filled largely with Golden Age detectives and with Wodehouse, and many favorites from my youth, but there’s one set aside for Austen and Trollope. That love began with a fairly earnest recommendation from my brother, and was birthed in a big old tree in one of my favorite spots in the whole world, over thirty years ago. I’d have still discovered Louise Penny, my favorite current author, without the benefit of first reading Austen, but it’s less certain I’d have found appreciation for Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood and a few others.
Even still, in looking over the lists of what other people consider quite important to have read, there are whole swaths I could never put checkmarks to, because I was never assigned them in 300 level literature classes or introduced to them in ways that induce my interest. There are so many people floating about loftily proclaiming a person cannot be well-read without having delved into them all. But I get the sense these are still the same people who talk of having begun reading at three and quit Mensa at nineteen, and they make my head tired. Maybe if they could convince me they also loved The Clue in the Jewel Box, Ellen Tebbits, The Summer Jenny Fell in Love, and anything by Ellen Conford or M.E. Kerr, then they could convince me my life is incomplete without having finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, but for sheer volume of books consumed they’ll never touch me, and I feel fine about that. Plus, old favorites need annual attention between discoveries of new ones. Today is a good day to read Emma again.