We’re living in a strange new world lately—a world of rules that govern where we go, who we see, and how much we buy at the grocery store.
As if those new rules weren’t enough, I’ve begun to notice Internet posts that imply there are rules for reading Jane Austen’s novels. I’ll give you a few examples:
Rule #1: It’s unethical to read a Jane Austen novel more than once.
There was a lively discussion thread on this topic on Facebook; but before you judge whether this rule is right or wrong, here’s the reason behind it:
There are so many books on store shelves—and so many e-books already downloaded to readers’ Kindles—just waiting to be read, it’s wrong for people to re-read old books when they could be discovering new authors and stories instead.
I can see how this rule has some merit, but in troubled times, I instinctively turn to the little things in life that give me comfort: a cup of hot tea, a comfy chair, and a Jane Austen novel. That doesn’t mean I can’t read a novel by a new author (which I regularly do; I mean, have you seen how many new JAFF novels came out just last month?), but I still want to hold fast to my favorites.
Rule #2: You’re not a true Jane Austen fan if you’ve never read Northanger Abbey.
I’m no expert, but I’d say you’re an Austen fan if you’ve ready and enjoyed even one of her books.
Yet quite a few people weighed in on this rule when it appeared on Twitter. The problem was that no consensus was reached; some Tweeters were firm in their belief that the rule applied to Pride and Prejudice rather than Northanger Abbey, while a few hold-outs proclaimed Persuasion as the masterpiece by which all Austen novels should be measured.
Sounds like this rule needs a little more work before anyone is required to follow it.
Rule #3: There’s only one proper reading order for Jane Austen’s novels.
I first read about this rule on a blog which shall be nameless for our purposes. But the blogger made several strong arguments to support her premise that any new reader of Austen’s books should always read Pride and Prejudice first.
Period. No exceptions.
When she posted her rule on Facebook, she drew replies from 194 people, many of whom disagreed with her premise. They thought Austen’s books should be read in the order in which she wrote them, so readers could see how Austen’s writing style evolved.
The discussion made me think back to the first time I read Pride and Prejudice; I was twelve years old, and I’ll confess I could not get through the book. The language and rhythm were too difficult for me.
But then I picked up Sense and Sensibility, and breezed through it in no time. I loved the story, and Austen’s use of language in that novel was somehow easier for me to navigate.
Once I’d finished Sense and Sensibility, I was eager to read more by Austen; and that’s when I returned to Pride and Prejudice. I began again on page one with her remarkable opening sentence, smiled, and dove right in. This time, I finished the book, and it has remained my favorite novel of all time. I’ve re-read it countless times (in violation of Rule #1 above).
I’m not sure why …
. . . people feel the need to make rules about something as simple as when and how and why we should read and appreciate Jane Austen’s books. Perhaps it’s their way of coping with a world that’s been turned upside-down for many of us. The truth is, we’re all just trying to find our way the best we can in a world of lockdowns and social distancing.
But I’ll confess that, so far, I haven’t abided by any of these rules. Maybe I’m just a literary rebel.
How about you? Are you a rebel, too?
What do you think some of the rules people have suggested for reading Austen?
Do you have any rules of your own to suggest?