WRITER AND JALF LITERACY AMBASSADOR SONIAH KAMAL REPORTS ON THE JOY OF RUNNING HER VERY OWN AUSTEN-THEMED BOOK CLUB
On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, the best way to commemorate her life was to (re)read all six of her completed novels. From there, it was a natural progression to want to celebrate her words in a group setting - and so, a book club.
I had previously served as Author-in-Residence for my library system and we wanted to team up again. A Jane Austen Book Club open to the community was perfect. Since we had the whole year, it made sense to spread out the novels and read one every two months. Since a two month interval allowed for plenty of reading time, I initially considered pairing each novel with a film adaptation, or essay, or even variations such as Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey written for the Austen Project. Ultimately I decided to stick to only Austen’s novels since discussing each novel would easily swallow up the hour allocated to the book club.
The most challenging aspect of designing a book club based on an author’s oeuvre is the reading order. Would it be more rewarding to read Austen’s novels in the supposed order they were written: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion? Or in the order in which they were published: Sense & Sensibility (1811), Pride & Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and then Persuasion plus Northanger Abbey as a set (1817)? I decided to start with Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s most popular novel was sure to draw a large crowd and it did. The novel is beloved but also has a wide audience thanks to the multiple screen adaptations, especially the now near mythical 1995 BBC drama starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Yes, Mr. Darcy’s iconic lake dip and wet white shirt did come up, as did the reminder that this scene does not take place in the novel. Pride and Prejudice can be discussed forever and so what should have been a one hour book club turned into close to three hours!
One of my main reasons for beginning with Pride and Prejudice was the hope that its popularity would bode well for the rest of the novels. But Northanger Abbey, our second read, just can’t seem to catch a break. I think readers get intimidated with Northanger Abbey being billed as a gothic parody because it follows that they must know the gothic novel in order to appreciate the novel. This is a disservice to Northanger Abbey. Knowledge of the gothic genre is not a requirement to enjoy Austen’s novel and, anyway, the gothic aspect does not appear until towards the end. Roughly the first two thirds of Northanger Abbey are pure Austen drawing room satire as Catherine Morland, our teenage heroine, finds herself on holiday in Bath and searching for excitement and friends. Northanger Abbey is a lovely exploration, amongst so many more themes, on the nature of expedient friendships in the guise of Isabella Thorpe, and on stalking and what is now known as mansplaining in the body of her brother, John Thorpe. I also focused part of the discussion on the city of Bath as a character in its own right knowing that the city is also the setting for Persuasion, to be read later, and that it would be fun to compare the two depictions.
Our third read, commanding a robust attendance, was Emma. As a teen I remember being riveted by the mysteries of who Harriet Smith was, and who gives Jane Fairfax her piano, and all the riddles. Even though I now know all the answers, it’s still always satisfying to see how Austen resolves everything. Austen claimed Emma was a heroine only she would be fond of, and there was a lot of laughter as the book club divided into those who agreed with Austen that Emma was unlikeable and those who love Emma.
Sense and Sensibility was our fourth read and the other Austen novel with a big fat film - in this case the Emma Thomson/Kate Winslet/Hugh Grant starrer. As suspected, films can drive up attendance numbers. Again our discussion went overtime as we went from talking about inheritance laws—naturally Downton Abbey came up too— to the sibling relationships between Elinor and Marianne versus that between Lucy and Anne Steele as well as brothers Edward and Robert Ferrars.
Given that I wanted to end the commemoration with Austen’s last novel written - Persuasion - the book club’s default penultimate read was Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park is my favorite Austen novel. I declare there is no better opening in any novel than Mansfield Park’s in which the fate of three sisters is decided by the marriages they make. In fact my novel Unmarriageable, which is a strict retelling of Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan, opens with a direct tribute to Mansfield Park:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a
girl can go from pauper to princess or
princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal”.
Austen called Pride and Prejudice ‘light, bright and sparkling’ and, in contrast, Mansfield Park is surely the opposite, though no less brilliant for its heavy intensity. In Mansfield Park, Austen depicts the nastiest of relatives - Mrs. Norris. Austen takes us into a lower middle class environment via the Price home in Portsmouth, and she gives us a fighter for a heroine in Fanny Price. Fanny is often described as insipid but I find her backbone remarkable - Mrs. Norris is not able to beat her down and neither is Sir Bertram - and the book club enjoyed a passionate discussion on Fanny’s ‘true’ character. Mansfield Park gives the reader one instance where Austen clearly uses her personal life in fiction and everyone was charmed that the amber cross pendant which Fanny is given by her sailor brother, William, mirrors Jane Austen’s own seafarer brother, Charles, gifting her with the same. I also directed the conversation to include Professor Edward Said’s essay, Jane Austen and Empire (new for many attendees), which focuses on Austen, colonialism and slavery in Mansfield Park.
Persuasion, Austen’s final fully complete novel, was our last read. A novel about the meaning of commitment, Austen wrote Persuasion while she was ill with a sickness which would eventually cause her death at age forty-one. It is a slim novel which showcases all the themes that appear in her other novels—ego, trust, betrayal, snobs, class, friendship, sisterhood, dead mothers, neglectful fathers etc. As was Northanger Abbey, so too is Persuasion set in Bath, and it was interesting to see how Austen depicted Bath in that first novel written versus this last one.
One of the great joys of reading an author’s oeuvre is that each discussion can build on and take from the previous read/s and so was the case here. From February’s Pride and Prejudice to December’s Persuasion, part of the fun of reading all six novels was to recognise Austen-predominant literary concerns and recurring character types (such as less-than-exemplary clergyman). Even more fun was debating which of the six novels was ‘best’ and concluding that each is best in its own right. For me, I was thrilled to be able to bring new readers to Northanger Abbey as well as convince quite a few that Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price may be quiet but she is far from a frightened, bossed-around mouse.
Commemorating Jane Austen on the 200th anniversary of her death by bringing her to life through reading all her novels as well as hosting the book club was an honour. I highly recommend hosting or participating in such a book club to all.
© Soniah Kamal - award winning essayist and fiction writer, including her newest novel, Unmarriageable, and JALF Literacy Ambassador.
The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.
Image credit: Amazon.in