The Significance of Books and Reading in Jane Austen’s Novels
By Lauren Gilbert
Jane Austen was a reader. She read widely. We know she enjoyed novels; she was a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s third novel, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress. She also enjoyed Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Anne Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth, among others. In Northanger Abbey, Austen defended Catherine Morland’s and Isabella Thorpe’s taste for reading novels (1). In fact, one of the most popular quotes from Jane Austen (also from Northanger Abbey, a remark by Henry Tilney) follows: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” (2) Austen also read poetry, such as William Cowper and Walter Scott and others. Non-fiction held no terrors for Austen either. Her own The History of England in her Juvenilia shows her familiarity with Oliver Goldsmith’s The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (she actually had a copy of the 4-volume 1771 edition of Dr. Goldsmith’s work). She also read Thomas Clarkson’s work on slavery and Robert Southey’s biography Life of Horatio, Lord Nelson (not surprising considering that she had sailors in the family) and other non-fiction. Is it possible, given the importance of reading to Austen and the extent of her reading, that there was some significance to reading (or the lack thereof) in relation to characters in her books? I took a look at Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion just to see…
Northanger Abbey was Austen’s first completed novel as an adult (sold as Susan to Crosby & Co. in 1803 for publication). She later bought it back and, during 1816-1817 revised it t0 the novel we know today. The novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, was only 17 years old, one of the youngest of Austen’s main heroines. She was from a large and loving family and something of a tomboy. She had opportunities to learn but was not supervised closely by her mother, and not pushed to study hard. She memorized some poetry and was predisposed to like books as long as they were all story and had little practical information. (3) She was passionately fond of Gothic novels, which coloured her friendships with Isabella Thorpe and Henry and Eleanor Tilney. While Catherine and Isabella seemed almost obsessed by the Gothic novels, Henry and Eleanor were much more balanced in their enjoyment (given their greater maturity). Her romantic disposition and inordinate fondness for these novels were clues to her youth and immaturity, which led her to make several poor judgements, climaxing in her conviction that General Tilney must have murdered his wife (Henry’s mother) because the atmosphere in his home and the general’s demeanour were so reminiscent of her favourite novels. She had the humiliation of being caught by Henry who recognized her misunderstanding and corrected it directly, and the greater humiliation of being sent home unescorted by General Tilney when he discovered that she was not the wealthy heiress he had thought her. These experiences, including having to manage her journey on her own, hastened her maturing process and, by the end of the novel, she was ready to receive Henry’s offer of marriage.
Pride and Prejudice featured Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, arguably Jane Austen’s most popular heroines. Elizabeth was 20 years old and Jane 22 at the beginning of the book, so were more grown up than Catherine Morland. Jane was almost her mother’s favourite (because of her looks) while Elizabeth was her father’s (because of her wit and spirit). Mr. Bennet was a scholarly gentleman and was most fond and involved the oldest two of his five daughters. (The three younger girls were apparently left to their mother’s hands.) His library was Mr. Bennet’s pride; he seemed to have spent a significant amount of money building it, and spent most of his time in it. Elizabeth was welcomed into his sanctum. Elizabeth was keenly interested in people, and quite confident of her ability to size up individuals. She formed opinions quickly. There is no list of what Elizabeth (or Jane) might have read; THAT Elizabeth (and probably Jane) enjoyed reading is my opinion based on their father’s influence and involvement with them. On her first night at Netherfield, Elizabeth picked up a book rather than join in a card game with Darcy, Bingley and the others. There was no indication of her selection, and she denied being a great reader or liking books better than cards as accused by Miss Bingley.
Ironically, Mary Bennet’s taste for Fordyce’s Sermons is the only clear example of literary taste among the Bennet sisters and, unfortunately, this and her music were exhibited more to get attention than to give herself (or anyone else) pleasure. Neither Kitty nor Lydia, the youngest Bennet girls, concerned themselves with accomplishments or reading at all. At Netherfield, after having heard Mr. Darcy aver that, with other accomplishments, a lady must also add “…the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”(4), Miss Bingley picked up a book while Mr. Darcy is reading and the others are occupied otherwise (Elizabeth was working, probably on some kind of needlework). Unfortunately, Miss Bingley’s effect was wasted as she selected the second volume of Mr. Darcy’s book and was clearly not really reading it. Like Mary Bennet, Miss Bingley was using her book to draw attention. Unlike her sister Mary and Miss Bingley, Elizabeth was aware of her lack of accomplishments and education, and how foolish her mother and younger sisters (and Miss Bingley) appeared when flaunting themselves for attention. Her blind spot was her confidence in her ability to see through people and in her own judgement. She blundered with Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy. When she rejected Darcy’s poorly timed proposal, she was so sure he was the villain of the piece; Darcy’s letter explaining the circumstances of his and Wickham’s relationship, punctured her self-confidence and forced her to recognize her errors of judgement. “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (5) Elizabeth and Jane decided not to tell anyone about Wickham’s past, which was a misguided effort to be fair (and also kept Elizabeth’s misjudgement quiet).
When Elizabeth encountered Darcy again at Pemberly while travelling with the Gardiners, they were well on the way to a much better understanding, when Wickham ran off with her 15-year old sister Lydia. Realizing that the elopement might have been prevented had she disclosed what she knew, then discovering Darcy’s role as Lydia’s rescuer when he compelled Wickham to marry Lydia, forced Elizabeth to recognize, yet again, her errors and pride. Her recognition of Darcy’s virtues and the fact that she loved him indicated her maturing mind. Her father’s and Darcy’s appreciation of her lively mind and intelligence, to me, demonstrated that reading was not an accomplishment neglected by Elizabeth even though we do not know what she read or actively see her engaged in reading as a frequent activity.
In Emma, books and reading were involved in the plot. Emma Woodhouse was 20 years old, and bored. She was talented in many ways, but did not choose to apply herself to fully develop her talents. She was very fond of Miss Taylor, her governess, whose affection for Emma resulted in a lack of discipline. Emma was indulged, and accustomed to being admired and having her own way. When Miss Taylor married Mr. Weston and moved to her own home, it left Emma to her own devices. Emma was very intelligent and active, more so than her sister and others around her. Emma inherited her abilities from her mother, who may have been able to control and direct Emma had she lived. (Certainly, no one else could.) Consequently, Emma dabbled instead of applied, which gave her little satisfaction or occupation, and left her free to find another project.
The only person to notice weakness and try to help her correct herself was Mr. Knightley, who told Mrs. Weston, “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.”(6) Emma prided herself on making the match between her governess and Mr. Weston, and decided to make a project of matching Harriet Smith, a parlour boarder at the local school for young ladies with unknown connections. Because of Harriet’s beauty and good nature (and good taste in looking up to Emma wholeheartedly), Emma decided that Harriet’s mysterious parentage must be of noble origin and resolved to match her with a gentleman. Emma did not act so much out of malice but exhibited a consummate blindness to anything she did not want to see so missed many cues. When Robert Martin, a tenant farmer of whom Mr. Knightley though highly, proposed to Harriet, Emma encouraged Harriet to refuse him, on the grounds he was beneath her and (among other flaws) illiterate. Even though he wrote an excellent letter of proposal to Harriet and was known to read farm journals, Emma apparently equated his failure to procure and read The Romance of the Forest immediately upon Harriet’s recommendation as illiteracy.
Emma’s attempts to throw the local vicar Mr. Elton (who had his eye on Emma herself) and Harriet together, her misguided jealousy and fault-finding of Jane Fairfax, and her misunderstanding of Frank Churchill’s intentions (while embracing his rather mean-spirited gossip) had her bouncing from awkward moment to worse. Mr. Knightley’s attempts to rein her in rather pushed her even further on her path; she felt uncomfortable but was unwilling to concede her errors. Emma’s unkind remarks to Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, which resulted in a blunt and emphatic castigation by Mr. Knightly (showing how she had fallen in his estimation) brought her up short, and set her on a more appropriate path. When Harriet confided that she had feelings for Mr. Knightley and thought Mr. Knightley might approach her, the final blinder came off and Emma realized she loved him. All of these realizations allowed Emma to mature and evolve to the young woman ready to receive and deserving of Mr. Knightley’s regard. (I always hoped that, after marriage, Mr. Knightley and Emma would read together some of those books she meant to read but never had.)
The first three novels considered feature young heroines in the process of maturing and evolving. The girls’ reading (or lack thereof) showed their need to grow up. They concluded with each young woman realizing her potential and making worthy matches accordingly. The fourth novel considered here, Persuasion, featured a different heroine. Being Austen’s last completed novel, written when she was over 40 and in ill health, the choice of an older heroine seemed logical to me. Anne Elliot was 27 years old and a mature woman who knew herself, her strengths and her weaknesses. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot, was inordinately proud of being a baronet and the only reading material in which he showed interest was his family’s entry in Debrett’s The New Baronetage of England. Her older and more beautiful sister Elizabeth, single at age 29, no longer enjoyed the Baronetage, and had quit looking at it. There was no indication of interest in any other form of reading interest for either of them. Younger sister Mary was married with two children, primarily concerned with her own health and feelings (household and children were left to her servants, and she was very occupied with making sure that her own precedence was observed and feeling put upon). Anne saw clearly the vanity and selfishness of her father and her sisters, and had experienced heartbreak (at the death of her mother at age 14, and at the breaking of her engagement to Captain Wentworth at age 19). In the intervening years, Anne had recognized her own weaknesses and errors, and learned from them. Her recognition of these matters did not lessen her affection and regard for her friend Lady Russell, who persuaded her that the engagement was an error; it taught her to respect her own judgement.
All of the action was viewed through Anne, who saw clearly but not unkindly. When Captain Wentworth, now successful and wealthy, turned up at Uppercross, while Anne was visiting her sister Mary and Mary’s family, Anne did not expect a second chance; she was focused on merely getting through meeting him again without exposing her own feelings. Anne herself was a reader. In the years prior to meeting him again, Anne had followed Captain Wentworth’s career in the newspapers and naval sheets. She was fond of poetry, occupying herself during the long walk from Upper Cross with remembering autumnal quotes appropriate to the season and her mood, while the others were separated out (including Captain Wentworth strolling with Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove). Anne was quiet but herself in the continuing interactions with Captain Wentworth, and he came to view her with renewed appreciation, especially during the visit at Lyme, where the admiration for Anne shown by an unknown gentleman (who turned out to be Mr. William Elliot, the cousin and heir to her father’s title) caught his attention and again when Louisa fell and injured herself and Anne kept her composure and took charge. In Lyme, Anne engages Captain Wentworth’s friend Captain Benwick in conversation about literature. As Anne had mourned the figurative death of her engagement, Captain Benwick mourned the literal death of his fiancee’ Fanny, and read poetry assiduously, quoting sad verses. While having great sympathy for his loss, Anne’s recommendation was more bracing: she suggested that he include more prose in his reading.(7) (Somehow, I could see Anne recommending Robert Southey’s Life of Horatio, Lord Nelson as suitable prose for a naval man.)
As the action moved from Upper Cross to Bath, Anne continued to pursue her own path, resuming a friendship with her old school friend, Mrs. Smith, who was poor and an invalid, while Sir Walter and Elizabeth chased social standing. Elizabeth neglected her sister in favour of Mrs. Clay, daughter of Sir Walter’s solicitor, who flattered both Elizabeth and Sir Walter assiduously. Captain Wentworth re-entered Anne’s orbit in Bath, freed from any entanglement with Louisa due to her falling in love with and becoming engaged to Captain Benwick as he read poetry to her during her convalescence.(8) Anne formed the warm, quiet centre of the action, the kind and sympathetic person to whom all were drawn, except for Elizabeth and Sir Walter who were both completely self-absorbed. Anne’s affections had not changed; it only remained for Captain Wentworth to rediscover his love for her and to write possibly the most beautiful love letter ever written to give Anne her due reward. She had already done the work and earned it. Her fondness for reading and choice of materials seemed almost a metaphor for her maturity and the development of her mind and spirit.
As an author, Jane Austen was known for her subtlety and delicate touch. One would not look for blatant symbolism or an obvious device in her novels. In the matter of books and reading, a source of great interest and inspiration to her and her writing, one would expect to find some reference to reading in her novels, and one does. Pride and Prejudice specifically referred to the improvement of the mind by extensive reading. The neglect of this improvement was reflected by the missteps of Emma, who did not challenge herself or develop her abilities, and Catherine Morland, who spent too much time reading light fare. Elizabeth, I believe, did read, but put too much faith in her own observations and judgements before her reading and her life experience could refine them. We watched these three heroines struggle and mature, so that they were worthy of their happy endings. In Anne, we saw the culmination of experience and growth, nurtured by her reading and the variety of materials she read, as she received her just and natural reward when those around her saw and appreciated her worth.
- Northanger Abbey Vol. 1 p. 37-38
- Northanger Abbey Vol. 1 p. 106
- Northanger Abbey Vol. 1 p. 15
- Pride and Prejudice Vol. 1 p. 39
- Pride and Prejudice Vol. 2 p. 209
- Emma Vol. 1 p. 37
- Persuasion Vol. 3 p. 101
- Persuasion Vol. 4 p. 167
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. 3rd edition. Vol. 5. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. 3rd edition. Vol. II. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Austen, Jane. Emma. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. 3rd edition. Vol. IV. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford.
BBC Arts & Culture. “Jane Austen: What books were on her reading list?” January 23, 2013. (No author shown.) http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/21122727
Persuasions On-line. “Jane Austen’s Reading: The Chawton Years” by Gillian Dow and Katie Halsey. Vol. 30 No. 2 (Spring 2010). http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no2/dow-halsey.html
Republic of Pemberly. “Allusions to Books and Authors in Jane Austen’s Writing.” (No date or author provided.) http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/litallus.html
About the Author:
LAUREN GILBERT has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Art History. An avid reader, she is a long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She has presented several programs for JASNA meetings including a breakout session at the 2011 Annual General Meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. She lives in Florida, with her husband. Her first published book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was released in 2011. Her second, A Rational Attachment, is in process, due out shortly. You can visit her website at www.lauren-gilbert.com for more information.
HEYERWOOD: A Novel is a romantic historical novel, set in the Georgian/Regency period in England. The story of a woman learning to cope with power and control at a time when women traditionally had little power at all, this book will appeal to readers of history, fans of historical novels, and admirers of Jane Austen alike.