In All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, literature teacher Amy Elizabeth Smith sets out to see if Jane Austen's writing translates across cultures and language in six Latin American countries. Tip Sheet asked Smith, an Austen fan and teacher, to rank the six novels.
Jane Austen fans are a warm, sociable lot --- it’s no stereotype about the teas and dances and all. But if you want to drop a fox in the henhouse, ask them to rank Austen’s six major novels. I’ve taught Austen courses for years, and I’m a life-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, so I’ve seen how passionate people get about their favorites. It’s this very passion that inspired my yearlong Latin American road trip: I wanted to see if readers in Central and South America would connect as strongly with Austen as many of us do in North America.
My book groups abroad covered Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, but that’s not a de facto Top Three. These works, I felt, would be the most accessible, and I was curious what might surface if groups in different countries read the same title. Would Guatemalans and Ecuadorians enjoy Pride and Prejudice equally well? Would Mexicans and Chileans take different sides on the Marianne/Elinor divide in Sense and Sensibility? As for Emma --- would Austen’s most high-brow heroine stir up the same controversy in Paraguay and in Argentina?
But on to the controversy at hand: my ranking of the novels. Let the feathers fly!
1. Northanger Abbey - Yes, that’s my choice --- Austen’s underrated gothic parody. My students love it, too. Catherine Morland is sweet and sincere, if a bit daft at times, and Henry Tilney is Austen’s most playful and witty male lead. Detractors argue that the two halves (in Bath and in Northanger Abbey) don’t jibe well and that Catherine’s character seems inconsistent. NA is one of Austen’s earliest works, and it’s less carefully revised than her others; it was published by her grieving family shortly after her death. Warts and all, it’s lively and fun, a wonderful defense of the pleasures (and perils) of a good novel. Who can resist writing like this: “A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, when there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number.” Austen was edgier than some folks think.
2. Persuasion - This novel, for my money, embodies Austen’s best for subtlety of characterization and insight into human weaknesses and folly. The humor of Northanger Abbey is still here, but more subdued, more mature. And speaking of mature, Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest heroine, nearly faded into spinsterhood at a dizzying twenty seven. As for Captain Wentworth, perhaps the love and admiration Austen had for the military men in her own family made her partial on his behalf, helping him become one of her favored leading men. Persuasion is profound but not heavy, entertaining but not frivolous --- a good balance between # 3 and #6 on this list.
3. Pride and Prejudice - Oh dear, how could I rank Austen’s most popular novel at #3? Actually, lots of scholars would put it even lower. Austen herself speculated it was “too light and bright and sparkling” (hint: kidding). The pacing here is Austen’s best, and of course, to know Lizzy Bennet is to love her; the chemistry between her and Mr. Darcy is legendary for a good reason. P&P is Austen’s grown-up fairy tale. It’s all here --- serious romantic tension, painful separations, surprise twists in the plot, triumph over the petty and the pompous, and a five-star happy ending.
4. Emma - Love her or hate her, it’s hard to argue against Austen’s skill in depicting this somewhat spoiled young lady. The problem with Emma is that several vexing scenes early on lead many people to hit the eject button prematurely (this happened in a big way with one of my Latin American groups). These readers don’t stick around long enough to enjoy all the shadings Austen develops in Emma’s character. Each of Austen’s novels address family squabbles and social class in one way or another, but Emma does so in a particularly engaging and insightful way. Mr. Knightly’s no Fitzwilliam Darcy, but he’s a solid citizen in Austenland.
5. Sense and Sensibility - My students love to debate the virtues of the oh-so-different sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. But almost none ever peg this as their favorite Austen novel. S&S is the first book Austen published, and the opening chapter has a kind of stodginess she ironed out completely by the time she hit her next deadline with P&P. Many readers find Edward Ferrars a dull romantic lead (casting Hugh Grant was a serious stretch, try as he might to look awkward). Plus, a lot of the tension in the work is circumstantial, rather than developed through character. Still, who can forget Willoughby and his pointers? (a big hit in Mexico --- the pointers, not Willoughby). And believe it or not, there’s an actual duel.
6. Mansfield Park - This stately work is beautifully written; many scholars consider it Austen’s best. It’s her most morally serious work --- and that alone will send certain readers dodging for cover. It’s the Austen novel I revisit the least, I must confess. The one semester I required it in my Austen class, I nearly had to suppress a mutiny. Anyone watching Patricia Rozema’s sexed-up film adaptation then heading to the book for more of the same will be wickedly disappointed. Yet Austen was proud of this novel. While the virtuous Fanny Price may strike many as a bore, she shows how being poor (and a woman, to boot) doesn’t mean you should have to sacrifice your principles. Still, setting mummies loose at Mansfield, as a recent mash-up author did, brought a smile to my face . . .
Now, let’s all take a deep breath before firing off any comments. If rank one must, some beloved novel will place second, third, or last. But when all is said and done, isn’t ranking Austen novels like ranking brands of chocolate? They’re all still chocolate. There’s simply no bad Austen novel, stack them however you will.