Which Austen Book to Read First
Recently, someone who desires to become acquainted with her writings asked me which Jane Austen book to read first.
What a great question! I have been an Austen fan for many years, and have read most of her books more than once. Also, I am an avid collector and watcher of movies and videos made from Austen’s books. Here is my answer.
To begin, choose “Pride and Prejudice”
I brought all except one of my old, tattered paperback copies of Austen’s works down from the bookcase and lined them up on my work table. “Pride and Prejudice” was missing. I know where it is. Years ago, I loaned it to someone who said she would return it after she read it. Well, either she hasn’t begun to read it or she read it and forgot to bring it back. Anyhow, I remembered way too late why I don’t lend my books.
My very favorite is “Pride and Prejudice.” P&P is the most complicated of all Jane Austen’s books. With its complex structure, some experts consider it to be the most perfectly constructed novel. I agree. If I were to read them all once again, P&P still would be my choice as a starting place.
To take a break from immersion in “Pride and Prejudice” and times gone by, jump into the twenty-first century. Look for a movie or video made from the book. There are several. I have collected them all.
The Best Video of the P&P Story
One very old movie, made in 1940 with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, is a real hoot to watch. The interpretation of Elizabeth Bennett was all wrong, but with Greer Garson, one can forgive. The thing I remember most about that movie was how all the girls darted quickly through scenes with nary a head bounce. It was like they were walking on air. The only modern day actress I know of who is able to perform that trick is Angelica Huston in “Ever After,” an interpretation of “Cinderella.” Ms Huston is one of the most graceful movers I ever have seen. Maybe it’s because she trained in ballet. Her mother was a ballerina.
The poorest video rendition of P&P is the one which has the most beautiful music and stars Keira Knightley. My opinion of this film is not good at all.
Whether it was the fault of the director or the star’s limited range, Ms. Knightly was not a good choice to play Elizabeth Bennett. She had best stayed on the Bounty – or whatever was the name of that pirate ship. In an obvious erroneous effort to update the primness of young women in Miss Bennett’s time, the director allowed Knightly to be smarmy in some places, and in others to portray a real smirky, smart-ass attitude. This was nowhere near Miss Bennett’s character.
Also included in this film was a segment in which Knightly wandered through Mr. Darcy’s room of museum-like, scantily clothed or naked marble statues (which, by-the-way was not in the book). In a dreamlike reverie of sorts, Knightly’s Elizabeth seemed to be sexually aroused by the statues. Ridiculous!
Most importantly, the Knightly video is very short and hits only the very peaks of some of the story points. If you don’t know the story, the video doesn’t make much sense at all.
One of the better video interpretations of “Pride and Prejudice” is included in the “BBC Jane Austen Collection.” This video is better, but it is too short to do the story real justice.
The Very Best P&P Video
The very best video made of “Pride and Prejudice” is the nearly six hour long BBC/A&E video collection. Originally, it was released on three two-hour VCR tapes. Currently, it can be found in a boxed set of two DVDs. The length of the video production allowed the complicated story texture and nuance to come through. You can see what was written by Jane Austen, and the six hour version is the most complete rendition of the story with all its nuances. The actors, including Colin Firth, Jenifer Ehle and Allison Steadman, are great. (No surprise with these three.)
So, to get back to the purpose of this treatise, begin your Austen reading with “Pride and Prejudice.” Then (and only then, as the video can be enjoyed so much more after you know the story) find the BBC/A&E video and indulge yourself. (Recently, I found it included in Amazon Prime membership. You have to search, but it is there.)
I remember well when the BBC video first came out on VCR. I was visiting my sister Joyce who recently purchased the set. She and I tossed all the sofa pillows onto the floor where we reclined for a Jane Austen marathon. My first binge-watch ever. When her grandchildren got hungry, we sent my ever patient brother-in-law out for fast food. When he returned, we replayed the part he missed. In present day, I have the video on disc and a couple of times a year I watch it on disc or on Amazon Prime.
Okay, now you are ready to read Austen’s other books. Choose any title to read next.
In “Persuasion,” you will be, in the beginning, impatient with Anne Elliot, but this was Austen’s purpose in creating such a character. You will see the character develop into the person you wanted her to be in the first place.
Best Video for “Persuasion”
There are a couple of “Persuasion” videos I have found. One made in 1995 got a “Two Thumbs Up” rating by Siskel & Ebert. That one is a BBC Films, WGBH Mobil Masterpiece Theater, etc. production. I liked it.
The video I liked best and will recommend is the “Persuasion” in the BBC’s six disc set, “The Austen Collection.” I’m not sure why I like it better. It simply could be that the actors appealed more to me. Most likely because it is the first one I watched. Watch them both and decide for yourself.
Emma Woodhouse was selfish and shallow. I will say no more. You will find no spoilers here. Wait until you see how Austen handled our dear Emma.
One adaptation of “Emma” is a video starring Romola Garai. Although I really do like Garai, in my opinion, in this film, she simply wasn’t my idea of Austen’s Emma. I kept it, but sent it to the bottom shelf on my video case.
Gwenneth Paltro made an “Emma” which I did not care for at all. You will need to judge this one for yourself.
In my opinion, the very best “Emma” video is in the BBC’s six disc set, “The Austen Collection.” The perfect empty-headed heroine who learns her lessons the hard way.
One of Mother’s favorite characters, Fanny Price, also is close to my heart. She had a constancy of character that made for a very engaging story.
“Mansfield Park” Videos
There is a TV adaptation of the story which I see every now and again. While I really liked some of the players, I was offended by references to rape and abuses on Antigua supposedly performed by Sir Thomas Bertram. This lame attempt to update a charming vintage tale was repugnant. It was not Austen.
The BBC’s six disc set, “The Austen Collection” is your go-to for “Mansfield Park.”
Sense and Sensibility
Austen’s first book was “Sense and Sensibility.” I read it last – for no other reason than I found it last. The Dashwood girls had to deal with great financial adversities which made for critical ups and downs of plot.
“Sense and Sensibility” Movie
After you read this book, look for the “Sense and Sensibility” movie for which the screen play was written by Emma Thompson (you’ll remember her as the near blind witch in some of the “Harry Potter” movies). Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet starred in this film. It is a fantastic rendition accomplished in about two hours and was an excellent treatment of Austen’s book.
My least favorite of Jane Austen’s novels was “Northanger Abbey.” Although it was a sweet love story, it is my opinion that Ms Austen was much better at writing romantic drama than she was at writing mystery. Maybe if she had written a second mystery …
“Northanger Abbey” Videos
The BBC’s six disc set, “The Austen Collection” is your go-to for “Northanger Abbey.”
Just thinking about the Jane Austen stories made me want to read them all for the umpteenth time. I believe I will. My copies are old and tattered, but the pages still turn.
Thanks for reading.
PS. I found an additional delightful piece:
The “Pemberley High,” video. An updated and modern version of Pride and Prejudice by Rachael Stanford. If you like Austen, you may like this, too.