It’s hard to believe now, but five years ago I threw a Jane Austen book into a skip that just so happened to be across the road from my school after a GCSE Literature exam on Pride and Prejudice. Exactly why I gave it such a swift, strong, symbolic sending off is now a mystery to me, because it was not the torturous experience that my actions make it out to be.
Our teacher was a sweet, vivacious, humorous woman; with all of us being girls we enjoyed this 19th Century Bridget Jones inspiration, but what we especially enjoyed was seeing Colin Firth in the bath and emerge from the lake. Also my mark was an "A" for the subject, so I had even less cause to complain.
Now I have made amends, and own all six books twice over, three times over in some cases. However one is the complete collection bound together in a book which is more likely to be used as a doorstop or step than to read, and is for display purposes only. My other collection, comprising six separate books, should also be for display only. They are hardbacks, and with beautiful covers depicting exquisite details in various articles of period clothing from the V&A museum. However they are readable, and I simply remove the covers to do so.
My first read was Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine Morland. Invited to stay with the Tilney family at their residence of Northanger Abbey, she eagerly accepts, being keen to explore the dusty old corridors and rooms. However, her vivid imagination born of reading Radcliffe, pulls together a string of consequences that lead her to a belief that the father, General Tilney, had committed some unspeakable act. Unknown to his son, Henry, who is very fond of Catherine, the General sends Catherine home in a very undignified manner. Will she ever see her beloved Henry again?
There are laugh out loud moments, my favourite being Austen’s cynical comment that “a woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can”. Two hundred years later, nothing’s changed. Austen dispenses pearls of wisdom such as “friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love”.
Yet it is also bittersweet to be reminded of women’s place in society. Austen notes that “Catherine did not know that … a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward”.
While it is refreshing to come across a likeable heroine named Catherine, unlike her namesakes in Basic Instinct and Wuthering Heights, Catherine Morland is rather unaccomplished for her time. On first meeting Henry Tilney I thought of him as simply a watered down Mr Bingley. However, in the final chapter, one sentence changed my perception of him completely, drawing forth a longing, romantic sigh from my lips and making me hope to meet my own Henry Tilney someday.
Austen’s novels are indisputably the original rom-coms. While they come without smutty jokes there is the confusion, mix-ups and hurt feelings that feature in every Notting Hill and Bridget Jones. Given the litigious nature of British society today, had Austen’s heroines been able to claim compensation for hurt feelings they would have substantially increased the size of their dowries, and their marriage prospects.