The Rules for Reading Jane Austen

The Rules for Reading Jane Austen

We’re living in a 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 read 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 to me like this rule needs a little more vettingwork 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 remain 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. Some 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 tried to 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. 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 Jane Austen reading rules of your own to suggest?

23 Responses to The Rules for Reading Jane Austen

  1. I had never heard any of these rules before so thank you for sharing them. I guess I’m a rebel too as I don’t subscribe to any of these rules and particularly feel strongly about being able to read whatever I want even if it’s reading the same book again and again.

    • We think alike, darcybennett! I love to re-read beloved books, and confess my “keeper shelf” is overflowing at the moment. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I certainly haven’t followed any of those rules. I find them rather hilarious [as I snort unladylike]. This was a great post.

  3. For most readers, I’d recommend they start with P&P. For most people, it’s the easiest to get into. S&S would be the next easiest, though some prefer it. People with more life experience often prefer Persuasion, with its grownup heroine. Reread all you want!

  4. But I do read the end of books before I read the book now that’s a rule that many would consider broken. Totally my call.

    • Terri, you have that rule in common with another one of the Austen Authors! Leenie Brown has mentioned a few times that she likes to read the end of a book before she reads page one. 🙂

  5. No rules followed with JA . I read p&p annually for many years. I have read all her completed books not her unfinished works at the time of her death.
    Given reading is a private activity who can know what rules are followed so why apply any. I just don’t see the point really rigidity would to me would take the fun out of the activity. Just enjoy slipping into another time and world.

  6. The only rule for reading I had was that, once started, I had to finish a book even if I disliked it. That rule has been discarded; life is too short, and there are too many books waiting to be read. I am a re-reader. Certain books are like old friends, and I will re-read them periodically. Jane Austen’s novels are all in this category. I always find something new to ponder. Sometimes I read them in the order published; sometimes I grab one based on the mood of the moment. The only rule is to READ.

    • Lauren, glad to read your post. I too am a re-reader. There are certain books I go back to time and again. In this crazy time we find ourselves living in at the moment I’ve never needed these old friends more. I’m quite happy to admit it!!

    • I have a similar goal (not a rule) to always finish a book I start, and I have to admit, it’s a real challenge sometimes! But in the end, I agree that the only rule is to READ. Thanks for commenting, Lauren!

  7. Rules are meant to be broken! I have read all of Jane Austen’s books, many of them more than once. Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite and I didn’t read it first although I can’t remember now what order I read them in. Many people consider themselves Jane Austen fans without ever reading one of her books, but loving the film adaptations and JAFF spin-offs. I’d always encourage people to read the original book before they watch the film of any writer, just to do that writer justice for being the originator of it, but that would be more or a guideline than a rule.

    • I absolutely agree, Allie, that you can be a Jane Austen fan even if you’ve only seen an adaptation of one of her novels. ITV’s “Sanditon” certainly proved that! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  8. I love to reread my Austen books! I read Pride and Prejudice first and that drew me to the rest of her books! Sense and Sensibility is my second favorite.

  9. I’m a reading rebel also, Nancy. Right now I’m rereading my favorite authors’ P&P’s. And…I’ve only read Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I’ve not read her other books…yet. But I will eventually. As to reading rules, the only one that makes a little sense is reading her books in order to see how her writing changes. Otherwise, read what catches your attention first, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the one that caught my attention. Since then, it’s been P&P variations. 🙂

    • I have some favorite P&P variations, too Gianna. I bought the paperback versions to live on the “keeper shelf” of my bookcase so they’re always close by in case the mood strikes me for a re-read. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

  10. Both my mother and I re-read books that we really enjoyed including Pride and Prejudice. By rereading a story you can pick up on things you missed previously or see the story from a new perspective based on where you are in life now versus where you were when reading the story before.

    As for the second rule I consider myself a big fan of Jane Austen but I do not believe I have ever read Northanger Abbey. I have seen a movie adaptation but know that it is not the same as the book. Even so it is not on my immediate TBR List and I don’t feel like that means I am not a fan.

    And regarding the third rule I believe that whichever book most appeals to your tastes of reading ability when you decide to check out Jane Austen, that would be the right first book for you. Not everyone has the sale taste in literature and the books aren’t connected so it should not really matter. What matters is to enjoy the story.

    Hope you are doing well and staying safe in this crazy world. Happy reading everyone, even if it is a book that you have already read!

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