Tuesday, December 26, 2017

7 Novels for Jane Austen Fans

Jane Austen remains one of the single most beloved and oft-read novelists in the English language, her novels the subject of countless adaptations, her characters familiar even to those without the patience to read of them, but her six novels, handful of unfinished novellas, and juvenilia don't hold out long. Though Austen's appeal is rather unique, intimately tied to a subtle, sardonic sense of dry humor and a perfect grasp of the follies of even the most sensible people, I offer to the forlorn Austenite seven novels that might procure her some little consolation:

Evelina - Fanny Burney
Burney's work was hugely significant to Austen - her second novel, Cecilia, supplied the title of Pride and Prejudice - and her first novel is a monumental achievement, both for its wit and charm and for the fact that its success proved that women, too, could write masterful fiction. Evelina is an epistolary novel and bears the stamp of Samuel Richardson's influence. It follows the fortunes of its titular heroine, a young naïve whose mother's scandalous elopement and grandmother's even more disreputable liaisons threaten her social standing and her marital prospects. Though Burney had an infallible nose for the idiocies of fashionable society and an ironic sense of humor to mock them, today one is struck by the frustration and yearning expressed in her descriptions of the indignities, fear, misunderstandings, and perils that attended even the most privileged of young ladies in the eighteenth century.

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding
A delightfully convoluted romp through the bedrooms, alcoves, and haystacks where the roguish Tom takes his pleasures, Henry Fielding's magnum opus follows the titular rascal as he discovers the true nature of his parentage. Since he is illegitimate, he cannot inherit his foster father's estate nor marry the lovely young Sophia Western, a paragon of virtue fond of the latest music, Handel, though her father begs her to leave off such modern noise. Though a veritable gold mine of historical commentary that ranges across British politics, religion, morality, and sexual politics, the novel is worth reading, more importantly, because it is pure fun. 

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Françoise de Graffigny
This novel first published in 1747 is often credited as the first feminist novel: and it does, indeed, venture a scathing critique of misogyny, racism, social hypocrisy, and the evils of enslavement to fashion and reputation. It is narrated by a Peruvian princess, kidnapped by Spanish colonialists and subsequently captured by the French. To make her separation from her homeland, her people, and her fiancé Aza more bearable, Zilia keeps a diary of sorts, recording her impressions of the strange and bizarre customs of this new land, France. Brilliant, acidly sarcastic, but also heartbreaking and wistful, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is a singular work of genius. 

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Though sex is just as dangerous a pastime in Austen's universe, it is carefully veiled in removed narration; after their elopement, Lydia and Wickham are not seen again until they are married, while poor Colonel Brandon's ward never appears at all. Laclos, far from clinging to propriety, crooks a nastily satirical eyebrow at morality and proceeds to expose the seamiest, most scandalous sex games of dissipated aristocratic life. Desperately bored and with no occupations but gambling, balls, court appearances, and operas, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont amuse themselves by challenging each other to ever crueler feats of treachery, seduction, and social ruination. If Austen is like a cup of perfectly brewed tea, Laclos is like a glass of delicately poisoned cognac.

The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
This is the novel that so fired the delirious imagination of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the ur-novel of the Gothic realm and a must-read for the Austen devotee. The orphaned Emily, shut up in the forbidding and possibly haunted castle of Udolpho, lives through a series of chilling horrors as she fends off the advances of the Count Morano, favored by her aunt and her sinister Italian aristocrat husband, and pines for the dashing Valancourt. Though meandering and often anticlimactic, The Mysteries of Udolpho may yet undergo a rise in popularity since it offers many of the terrifying, titillating delights of films like Crimson Peak and television series like The Tudors.

Indiana - George Sand
Indiana is barely more than a child when she is married to the elderly Colonel Delmare; the consequences of this socially sanctioned, but otherwise wildly unsuitable mismatch propel the tragic events of this 1832 novel. Politically cogent, righteously fiery, and yet exquisitely, almost daintily written, Indiana is an extraordinary first novel. George Sand sets part of her book in the French colony oÎle Bourbon; Indiana's foster sister, Noun, is of mixed racial descent and her sympathetic portrayal is highly unusual for a work of this period.

Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
Left unfinished after her death from complications after childbirth, Wollstonecraft's radical feminist novel demolishes in systematic fashion nearly every argument one could make in favor of the institution of marriage. The heroine has been shut up in an insane asylum, modeled on Bedlam, and deprived of her child, the result of an attempt to leave her husband, who gambles, frequents prostitutes, brings them to destitution, and repeatedly rapes her. By illustrating the extent to which the extension of male power over women could be abused, Wollstonecraft both made an unanswerable case and rendered herself quite unpopular in her own time. Though Austen herself was no radical feminist, the creator of Wickham, Willoughby, and Crawford might likely have felt sympathy with poor Maria.

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