Happy 200th Anniversary, Sense and Sensibility!

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Jane Austen drawing
Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This year, 2011, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It was the first of her six novels to be published, so this year starts the several-year celebration of the 200th anniversary of all of her novel publications (two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously, in 1818).

I find that many literary geeks are also Jane Austen geeks. I don’t label myself a literary geek, but once I got entranced by Jane Austen’s stories, I’ve done my best to become as much of an expert on her time and her stories as possible (I’m still working on it).

The first time I tried to read a Jane Austen book, I did so without first knowing the story. Not the plot, not the characters, nothing about the time period. I was completely lost. The 200-year space between when she wrote and when I read proved to be too much.

But after years of watching many movie versions of her six books, I did manage to read a couple of them. Now I’m going through them all again, successfully reading, enjoying, and understanding what is going on. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice (a couple of times), Persuasion (my second favorite story), Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and I’m currently working on Emma. Mansfield Park, my least favorite story, will come last. I hope the book is much better than the stories shown in the movie versions I have seen.

Jane Austen for Dummies
Image: For Dummies

A couple of books written by others have helped me along the way to understand Jane Austen’s writing more deeply. I did a great deal of research into which books on Jane Austen’s time I should read, poring over descriptions and tables of contents, and reading dozens of reviews. Here is what I came up with.

The incredibly informative but unfortunately titled Jane Austen for Dummies has been the most helpful. It gives specific information on many aspects of life during Jane Austen’s time in the different classes, but particularly the gentry. In Jane’s books, a subtle look here, a word dropped there, now had a whole new meaning for me. One minor detail meant someone’s life had changed drastically. They were disinherited. Or were slighted. Or were obligated. Or were in love. I could now read and appreciate all the specifics in the books, the subtleties of Jane’s writing, and of life in her sphere during that time. For example, shaking someone’s hand or using someone’s first name both held different meanings then than they do now.

Jane Austen manners
Image: Bloomsbury USA

Another book which was helpful was Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. It’s a beautiful little book with a ribbon bookmark and lovely watercolor illustrations. It contains organized etiquette rules, divided up into topics. You’ll never doubt when you need to return a call (an in-person visit) again! If you’re in Regency England, that is. It also contains fun analyses of travel times and yearly budgets, figuring out more details about the lives of characters from Jane’s books.

If you like romance or excellent literature and you’ve never tried reading Jane Austen before, give it a try. It it proves insurmountable, try watching a movie version first, and then re-reading the book. Once you understand the sometimes complicated relationships among the characters, the books are much easier to understand.

Jane Austen’s six novels are available for free on Kindle or Project Gutenberg, or you can buy bound volumes online for various prices. Jane Austen for Dummies retails for $19.99. Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders retails for $14.95.

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