The many levels of Jane Austen's work

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Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, recently spoke to the Palm Beach Literary Society. According to the Palm Beach Daily News, Ms. Fowler discussed how the meanings of Jane Austen’s novels changed for her as she read them at different stages of her life.

Fowler said her parents wanted her to read the classics, and she was introduced to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen during her early teenage years. She loved the book and also read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It was during the time when Fowler was reading “shallow teen romance novels” and viewed Austen’s novels as a type of teen romance.

“What I loved about them was the romance,” she said of Austen’s novels. “I loved the heroines. I loved the false tension over whether she would end up with the man she was supposed to be with, and I loved the happy ending. That’s pretty much all I noticed.”

The next time Fowler read Austen’s novels was when she was in college in the 1960s.

“Now with my feminist consciousness in full blossom, I realized she was an extremely feminist writer,” Fowler said. “I noticed two things somewhat paradoxical: that her books were much darker and much more complicated than I had understood and much funnier. I had not really noticed, as a teenager, how very funny she is.”

Fowler again picked up Austen’s novels while a young mother.

“This time, enmeshed in my own family, it didn’t seem like Austen even wrote romances at all,” Fowler said. “It seemed that romance was a convenient plot structure to hang a story that was all about family, all about parents, all about siblings, all about the peculiar relationships we have in our families. I noticed as a young mother what I had not noticed before — that Austen was pretty hard on mothers.

This ties in nicely to the discussion we’re having in the comments for The Editrix’s Cranky Post below. The marriage plot in Jane Austen is there, and it is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all of her work. There is something in her work for everyone, at every age. Isn’t that why we keep reading and re-reading them?