Being Sensible about Jane Austen – by Charlotte Canelli

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin this week.

Jane might be amazed.

Jane Austen died nearly two centuries ago. She was born in 1775, shortly before the Declaration of Independence was written in these far-away colonies. She was nearly 36 years old in 1811 when her first novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, was published. It was followed by “Pride and Prejudice” in 1813, “Mansfield Park” in 1814 and “Emma” in 1816.

Jane died in 1817 before “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” were published. It is these six books that make up the collection of “Austen Scholarship.”

I wasn’t a teen but was in my mid-twenties when I discovered Jane Austen and read all of the six novels back-to-back. Today I know that I don’t have that kind of attention span. The only other one-author marathon I can think of was the summer I devoured Sue Grafton’s mysteries from A-G. I had to take a break at “H is for Homocide” and never quite picked up the pace again.

Jane Austen’s books did sell well and she received favorable reviews during the few years that she was alive to see them published. The money she earned from them afforded her financial stability. However, I can’t believe that she would have dreamed that over two-centuries later that the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA.org) would have over 65 regional groups. Boston’s group is one of the most active. Annual general meetings of the JASNA groups have been held each year since 1979 and plans are underway for the 2012 meeting in New York with the theme “Sex, Money, and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction”.

Yes, Jane might have been astounded.

In “Why Jane Austen?” published just last month, Rachel Brownstein has written part memoir, part explanation, and part history about Austen’s intrigue. In “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter”, William Deresiewicz describes the lessons one can learn from reading them. He purports that they are not merely chick-lit. They are inspirational and insightful.

Readers crazy for Austen can read over seventy “spin-off” novels such as Maria Hamilton’s “Mr. Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman”, “The Perfect Bride of Mr. Darcy” by Mary Lydon Simonsen and “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” by Beth Patillo. Others are “Writing Jane Austen” and “The Jane Austen Book Club.” These books hope to quench the thirst for more Austen than the six books that she wrote.

Jane might be awestruck

Of course, if you’ve never read Jane, you’ll need to start with the first of her books and my personal favorite, “Sense and Sensibility.” It’s also my favorite Austen movie and we won’t argue here why I love the 1995 version with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. The first film adaptation of Austen’s book was in 1940 with the MGM production of Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier. BBCs television miniseries is arguably the best adaptation of her novels and millions of us have succumbed to Colin Firth’s charms.

And back to sensibility. I’ve written in my column before about how much I love to read annotated works. I prefer to read non-fiction and annotated works are a perfect blend for me. They include literary criticism, history, definitions and illustrations along with incredible works of literature.

David M. Shapard has published three volumes of annotated Jane Austen. He began with Pride and Prejudice in 2007, continued with Persuasion in 2010 and has just published Sense and Sensibility this year. “The Annotated Emma” will be published next year.

If you are curious as to what a pianoforte of the time looked like, you’ll find out in Shapard’s books which include about 100 black-and-white illustrations. Wondering how a country home might have been landscaped in the early 19th century in pastoral England? You’ll see several illustrations in the annotated works.

If you’d rather read just one book about Austen’s work, or perhaps take the Jane Austen Aptitude Test, then “The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Jane Austen” by Carol Adams, Kelly Gesch and Douglas Buchanan is the book for you. (Other BBA Companions include Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Dickens.)

Perhaps Jane herself would love to come back to life to read “A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen” edited by Susannah Carson or “Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World” by Claire Harman.

Jane Austen died in 1817 just after her 41st birthday. Her brother arranged for her last two books to be published as a set. This was the first time his sister, Jane Austen, was actually identified as the author. All four of her first novels were authored, rather cryptically, ‘By a Lady.” These last two novels sold fairly well for several years. However, all of her books were out of print for the next twelve years until they were published as the collected works in 1933.

Jane Austen might be astonished. They have never been out of print since.

If you’d like to read Jane Austen or read about her books, be sure to visit the Morrill Memorial Library. For help with finding books, movies or audiobooks, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website, www.norwoodlibrary.org.

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