It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was one of the greatest novelists of all time and 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of her death. In honor of the occasion the city of Bath has putting on festivities and role playing exercises all summer long and the United Kingdom has now put Jane’s face on their currency. For those of us who can’t get across the Atlantic and don’t have their own currency press, the best way to commemorate the occasion would be by reading. Obviously the six novels Austen wrote in her lifetime are a great place to start but if you’ve read and re-read these books a number of times perhaps you want something new. Here are some suggestions.
Evelina or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World by Fanny Burney (1778) Fanny Burney was one of the very first novelists who wrote comedies of manners. Evelina is Burney’s earliest and most beloved work. This three volume epistolary novel about the unacknowledged yet legitimate daughter of an English aristocrat and her struggle to find her place in society is an underappreciated classic. It features a colorful cast of characters from high and low society both and vivid descriptions of late 18th century London and society-which was considerably more risqué and even downright bawdy compared to Austen’s tame country villages. It’s also hysterically funny and Burney a devotee of the stage had a knack for writing scenes that if not always 100% realistic were certainly dramatic. Burney’s other works include Cecilia and Camilla both mentioned by Austen.
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth (1801) Irish author Maria Edgeworth was Austen’s favorite novelist and Belinda was one she named in particular for praise. This three volume work deals with love, courtship, marriage, and the conflict between duties and desire. Belinda was particularly controversial in its time for depicting an interracial marriage between an African servant and English farm girl. Edgeworth’s other famous work Castle Rackrent a satire on Irish landlords is regarded as the first historical novel, first Anglo-Irish novel, and the first regional novel in English.
Waverley By Walter Scott (1814) Set against the background of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, Waverley is considered the first historical novel in the Western tradition of the word. It was an astonishing overnight success that sold out its first edition in two days. Critics raved about it, but perhaps the most famous praise came from Scott’s contemporary Jane Austen who proclaimed, ‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.-It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a poet and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.-I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it-but I fear I must.’
Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935) This combination mystery-romance novel with Beau Brummel as a character was Heyer’s first contribution to Regency Romances, a genre she would become renowned for. Directly inspired by Austen, Heyer deliberately used the time and setting as plot devices for her books which she scrupulously researched, (going so far as to purchase a letter by the Duke of Wellington) so she could provide detailed descriptions. She concentrated on the upper classes with little mention of politics, religion, or poverty but consistently delivering romances that were witty, light, and frothy.
Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods By Roy and Lesley Adkins (2014) Husband and wife team Roy and Leslie draw on a huge number of contemporary sources to chart the lives of gentry and commoners alike in the world that Austen inhabited. What they put together is a fascinating, engrossing history of an England experiencing war, the Industrial Revolution, economic flux and a variety of changes. Any fan of Austen or history lover will find this a must read!
Top photo Bigstosk: Jane Austen Original Writing Table. Chawton House. England.