Recently, someone who desires to become acquainted with Austen’s writings asked me which of her books to read first.
What a great question! I have been a Jane 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 the 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 loan my books.
My favorite is “Pride and Prejudice.” P&P is the most complex of all Jane Austen’s books. With its complex structure, some experts consider it to be a perfectly constructed novel. I agree. If I were to read them all again, P&P still would be my choice as a starting place.
Choose the Best Video to watch “Pride and Prejudice”
After I finished the story, I would take a break from my immersion in times gone by and jump into the twenty-first century to look for a movie or video made from the book. There are several. I have collected them all.
One very old movie, made in 1940 with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, was 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 got what I call the ballerina scoot down pat. In floor-sweeping dresses, they scurried from place to place with nary a head bounce. The only modern day actress able to perform that trick was Angelica Huston in “Ever After.” She is one of the most graceful movers I ever have seen. Maybe it’s because her mother was a ballerina.
The poorest video rendition of P&P is the one which has beautiful music and stars Keira Knightley. My opinion of this film is not good at all.
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 ship. In an obvious effort to update the primness of young women in Miss Bennett’s time, the director allowed KK to be smarmy in some places, and in others to portray a real smirky, smart-ass attitude. Neither demeanor was anywhere near Miss Bennett’s character. Also included in this film was a segment in which KK wandered through Mr. Darcy’s room of fine marble statues, museum-like scantily clothed or naked bodies, and got turned on by them. Ridiculous! In addition, that video hits the very peaks 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” is better, but it is too short to do the story real justice.
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 captured the complicated story texture and nuance written by Jane Austen, and is pretty much the complete 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 tirade, begin your Austen reading with “Pride and Prejudice.” Then (and I underline then, as the video can be enjoyed so much more after you know the story) find the BBC/A&E video and indulge yourself. I remember when the video first came out on VCR, my sister Joyce and I tossed all the sofa pillows onto the floor where we reclined for our Jane Austen marathon. When our children got hungry, we sent my ever patient brother-in-law out for fast food.
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 you will see her develop into the person you wanted her to be in the first place.
The 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 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. If you watch them both, you can decide for yourself.
Emma Woodhouse was selfish and shallow. Wait until you see how Austen handled her.
One adaptation of “Emma” is a video starring Romola Garai. In my opinion, it wasn’t Austen after they finished with it. To get it out of my sight, I sent it to the bottom shelf on my video case.
I think Gwenneth Paltro may have made an “Emma” also, but I don’t have it if there is one.
In my opinion, the best “Emma” video is in the BBC’s six disc set, “The Austen Collection.”
One of Mother’s favorite characters, Fanny Price, also is close to my heart. She had a constancy of personality that made for a very interesting 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, and which starred Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. 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 a delightful piece: Pemberley High, an ongoing online piece, a high school updated version of Pride and Prejudice by Rachael Stanford. If you like Austen, you may like this, too.