Jane Austen is not my favorite author

Jane Austen is not my favorite author

Jane Austen is not my favorite author. I feel a little embarrassed saying this, but it’s true. If I had to go into an underground bunker to outwait the zombie apocalypse and I could only take one book, it would be The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, because only Jeeves and Wooster could make the z.a. endurable. Of course viewed purely in terms of value for money, it would make more sense to take the considerably longer Emma or Mansfield Park into that bunker, but that’s the sort of reasoning that would have me reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace while listening to the sounds of the aboveground horde moaning “Brains! Brains!”

Austen’s not even my second or third favorite author and to be honest, I don’t know if she even makes the top ten. And apart from Wodehouse being on top, I really can’t give an exact order or say who’s in the top ten. The candidates come mostly from genre fiction and include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell and especially Edgar Rice Burroughs. I did not know it when a child in first grade, but Burroughs’ heroes would inform my opinions and understandings of the world to this day. Their sense of decency and fair play would one day make me appreciate Darcy and Knightley. (Burroughs would also make me think women lay eggs or bathe in slimy pools to reproduce, but I don’t hold that against him.)

Science fiction, of course, often dealt in grand themes such as galactic civilizations and human evolutions and I was lost to that wonder and spectacle. I actually skipped senior English so that I might spend time in the library reading science fiction. My adolescent mind would never have bothered to read of the lives of three or families in a country village. What I did not realize, however, was that science fiction was preparing me for the day when I would come to appreciate Jane Austen.

My greatest and most fundamental inspiration, the reason I am the person I am today, is Star Trek. I know to keep my phaser on stun, to obey the Prime Directive (unless morally unjustifiable) and to seek out new worlds and new civilizations.

Despite the seeming contradiction, reading and writing historical novels is a lot like reading and writing science fiction. The manners and mores of Regency England are so different to us that it almost seems like an alien world; and certainly an author feels like a time traveler, careful not to step on a butterfly or to risk exposure by introducing an anachronism. At times writing Regency fiction I feel like a Federation scientist observing a pre-warp civilization.

The other genre fiction I appreciated was mystery. I’d been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories from an early age. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was incredibly important for grounding me in the reality of the past, a past that would eventually stretch back to the English Regency. I have to credit Doyle for instilling in me the value of reason and a sense of justice and mercy, especially in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

At the end of that story, Holmes explains to Watson why he allowed the man who stole the notorious jewel to go free:

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies … I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now, and you make him a gaol-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

That’s the sort of forgiveness required of Fitzwilliam Darcy if he is to accept George Wickham as his brother-in-law.

Other mystery heroes include Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and later Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. These detectives lived by a strong, but not strict moral code. Even the morally suspect Spade, who slept with his partner’s wife, had a line he would not cross. In The Maltese Falcon, he explains to Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he’s giving her up to the police for having killed Floyd Thursby:

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around — bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Compare this to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility finally revealing to her sister Marianne the secret that Lucy Steele had told Elinor, that Lucy was secretly betrothed to the man Elinor loved:

“Four months!—Have you known of this four months?”
Elinor confirmed it.
“What!—while attending me in all my misery, has this been on your heart?—And I have reproached you for being happy!”—
“It was not fit that you should then know how much I was the reverse!”
“Four months!”—cried Marianne again.—”So calm!—so cheerful!—how have you been supported?”—
“By feeling that I was doing my duty.—My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy.”

And now my favorite author: I discovered Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters in my freshman college year and kith called to kin. I was back in England in the 1920s and ’30s and there’s a curious parallel in Jazz Age and Regency fashions I would later recall (and also the importance of suitable marriages). There’s also a strong resonance in the moral code I would later find in Austen’s heroes.

The actual code that Bertie Wooster adheres to is “Never let a pal down.” The code manifests itself in wondrously wacky ways. He often finds himself engaged to completely unsuitable women but is too much the gentlemen to say no. And he usually finds himself in this situation because he’s trying to help out a chum or a relative, even to the point of facing thirty days in jail without the option, rather than allow his aunt to lose her valued chef Anatole.

In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie even ticks off Roderick Spode, a man of destiny modeled on Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists more commonly called the Black Shirts:

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

It should be explained that Spode’s followers wore black shorts.

When I read Elizabeth Bennet ticking off Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, I found a presentiment of Bertie.

“Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,” replied Elizabeth, “have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”

All my life I seem to have admired just the sort of authors who would one day prepare me to esteem and admire Jane Austen. She was in some strange way my reward. I could even argue Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics would lay the groundwork for the moral code that I would recognize in Austen. I could never have appreciated Austen without these authors and so Jane has to take a back seat to them. Curiously almost all were male and only one was concerned with the matrimonial prospects of young women. But somehow they all led me to appreciate Jane Austen when the stars aligned. She may not be my favorite author, but my favorite authors strangely led me to her.

17 Responses to Jane Austen is not my favorite author

  1. I do love Wodehouse, but it is tough to read the books one after the other because the clockwork well-crafted formulaic nature of the humor and the tone quickly deadens one’s soul.

  2. No fear of being stripped of your Janeite credentials, Jennifer, at least not from me, because Jane Austen is not my favorite author either. That honor goes to JRR Tolkien. In fact, like you I am not sure Jane would make my top ten, although that is mainly because I have a difficult time narrowing my favorite authors down! I do know that there would be way more fantasy authors on my list — David Eddings, Barbara Hambly, Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, among many others — as well as a smattering of sci-fi, romance, classic genre fiction, and even a couple horror (Stephen King, Dean Koontz) and western authors.

    In truth, I am more of a “favorite book” person then favorite author. There are many books I love, love, love by authors I didn’t care for their other works — first 3 Dune novels, and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, for instance. Jane Austen is somewhere in between for me. I adore P&P, it definitely in my top ten fav books, but can’t say I have the same devotion to all of her novels. Not that I dislike any of them, mind you!

    IMO, the perk of reading sci-fi and fantasy for the writer is the skills learned in world building. Back story, scene setting, descriptions, and so on are vital in a story taking place in a different world or time. The subtle, careful way a writer weaves this into his/her story is a brilliant lesson in creative writing that an author in any genre can apply.

    And how cool that you are a Trekkie! I am too! I am, once again, watching my way through Next Generation on Netflix. I’ve already rewatched the Voyager and Enterprise series, and may give Deep Space Nine another try. 🙂

    • DS9 is my favorite, although that’s like picking a favorite pet. First among equals perhaps. In the Pale Moonlight is brilliant. Sisko keeping quiet about Garak killing the ambassador in order to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War: the Alpha Quadrant has been saved at the small cost of “the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer,” which, considering all circumstances, is “a bargain.”

  3. I must say that Around the World in 80 Days was my youthful favorite. I enjoyed Austen at 12, but our Dear Jane’s books did not have the “twists” that I found in this piece. I am very much a puzzle solver by nature.

    • A Journey to the Centre of the Earth was my first Verne story, which really captured me. 20,000 Leagues was also a favorite, although Verne’s fascination with listing things could make for slow going for a kid reader. My first adult book, and I swear it was right after Pokey Little Puppy, was The Land that Time Forogt.

  4. I love your choices of mystery heroes. Being a huge fan of Raymond Chandler I can appreciate your point of view. For me it all depends on whether I want to be sipping tea while I savor sarcasm or taking my snark straight-up. 🙂

  5. Jane Austen is not my favorite author either,but the librarian had no business telling the sixth grader her dislikeof Austen’s books. By the way my favorite author is R Delderfield.

    • Marilyn, any recommendations on what Delderfield to start with? Looks like there have been some adaptations as well. I wouldn’t mind finding one of those to watch as a lure to start reading.

  6. I read Jane Austen because I started reading Anne Of Green Gables which was entrancing. This was my entree into further adventures.

  7. When I was in sixth grade, I asked the school librarian where I could find “Pride and Prejudice”, and she told me I was far too young to read a book by Jane Austen and that I wouldn’t like it. She directed me elsewhere, and that negative message that I wouldn’t like it stuck. Sadly, it was decades from that time before I read anything by Austen. In the meantime, I devoured books in numerous genres and found a number of authors I loved (some which we share). I would be hard pressed, even today, to pin down my absolute favorite. Austen is certainly in the running, but so are a few others. Sadly, she was not an influence in my youth as she ought to have been, thanks to a ridiculous librarian whose own prejudices spoiled an early introduction for me. Enjoyed your post!

  8. Jenni, this came about because I was having a private tea with other Janeites. It’s weird how I managed to go fifty years on planet Earth without once ever “doing tea” and now that I’m a Janeite/Sherlockian/Wodehousean I do about four a year and since I have a England trip this year, I should manage to squeeze in a few more. Anyway, I asked the question whether Jane was their favorite author and I think everyone confessed she wasn’t, which really surprised me.

    I can only conclude the company I keep as a Janeite has a lot to do with my reasons for being one.

  9. I have a confession to make too. Jane Austen isn’t my favorite author either. However, she is my second. And my first wrote in the Regency genre, but yeah… I strangely understand a bit of your confession. 😉 Please ask me all the time if Jane was my favorite author and I have to tell them nope. Judith A. Lansdowne is. However, it is fascinating to see your connections and fun to see what genres you love to read and how you were led to her. Now I will have to check out some of your favorite authors too. Thank you!

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