The problem with Austen

A colleague recently said to me “You can’t really live in the UK for too long without reading Pride & Prejudice, can you?” But I have to say I never have. Nor have I seen any of the adaptations. Nor (to the surprise of said colleague) do I have any desire to do so.

Until moving to London and starting this challenge I’d not read much that was written before the mid-20th century (apart from children’s books, I have a real soft spot for old-fashioned children’s tales – think, The Secret Garden and The Railway Children). But the list demands it so I started looking at Austen and the Brontës etc.

I started with Wuthering Heights which was a really good read and I read Jane Eyre which I enjoyed ever so much and so at last I turned to Austen. Since I’d vowed against reading P&P I decided to start with Emma which I managed to find cheap in my local Oxfam and promised me laughs and drama aplenty. To quote royalty: I was not amused.

What really bugs me about Austen’s novels (based on this limited reading and what I know of the plotlines to her other novels) is this: nothing happens.

That may seem a little strong but as far as I can see all most of her characters do is sit around at each other’s houses taking tea and worrying about who they’re going to marry. In Jane Eyre, there is a mad wife who continually tries to murder our hero and in Wuthering Heights, a ghost roams the moors and the ‘hero’ is an unlikeable thug. Jane Austen was writing at approximately the same time as the Brontës so why is it that her plotlines are so lacking (yet her novels so much longer)?

Perhaps it was just that the Brontës were a more dramatic family but Charles Dickens was writing at the same time and his novels are famously full of twists and turns. I have separate issues with Dickens due to the minute level in which he describes everything but I can’t deny the fact that his tales are far from dull.

So I may struggle through P&P when I get towards the end of the list but I don’t think Jane and I are destined to be friends.


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