My introduction to my favorite author was not what you would call auspicious. Far from it. The first time I held a Jane Austen novel in my hands it was a punishment. (Yes, there’s a story there.)
One day towards the end of school in seventh or eighth grade, my friends and I were being a little overly talky in English class. (For the record, it annoys me to no end that I can’t remember if it was seventh or eighth grade. I think it was seventh grade, but there’s no way I can prove it. The great tragedy of team teaching, at least as it was implemented in my middle school, is that I had the exact same teachers for two years. At the time I was stoked, because most of those teachers were awesome, but now that I’m 20 years removed from it it’s hard to pinpoint which grade a lot of things happened in.) I’m sure that Mrs. Geesey, our teacher, told us to bring it in and bring it down a couple of times and we pretty much ignored her. Eventually she walked over to the bookcase under the window and pulled out six books. She handed one book to each of us and said that we had to read 20 pages a night until the end of the (school) year. (I have absolutely no recollection of how we were supposed to prove to her that we did, though.) When I looked down I saw that I had Pride and Prejudice in my hands.
I still have that copy of Pride and Prejudice. I never felt the need to buy a different paperback copy. (Although someday I would like nice, hardcover editions of all six Austen novels.) Besides, seeing “Geesey” written on the first page serves as a nice reminder of the above story. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t steal it. I think Mrs. Geesey told us to keep the books when she first gave them to us.
Now, I’ve already told you that Austen is my favorite author. Pride and Prejudice also happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels (not to mention my favorite Austen novel). You’re probably assuming that I became a devoted Janeite that summer. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. I stopped reading Pride and Prejudice as soon as school was out. I was only at page 100 or so, about 20% of the way through the book, and I wasn’t really feeling it. It sat on my shelf until ninth grade, when I read it for an English assignment. The assignment was to select a book from the list provided by T. David (my high school English teacher), read it, and then be interviewed as one of the characters in the book. I chose Pride and Prejudice simply because I already owned it (thanks, Mrs. Geesey). I’m sure I got an A on the assignment, but I still didn’t really like the book. I just didn’t get it.
I was in high school in the mid-90s. Movie adaptations of Austen novels were quite popular in the mid-90s, whether they were straightforward (Sense and Sensibility and Emma) or updated (Clueless). I saw all three of those movies in the theater. I also read Sense and Sensibility and Emma before I saw their respective “straightforward” adaptations. I liked both novels more than Pride and Prejudice.
I remember that when I bought Emma, the cashier at Waldenbooks started telling me about this new book that she thought I would like if I enjoyed Austen. It was Bridget Jones’ Diary. I didn’t buy Bridget Jones at the time, but I did eventually and I loved it. Even if it took forever for me to make the connection to Pride and Prejudice. I know that seems hard to believe, but I really didn’t get the story in Pride and Prejudice. How could I have seen the parallels? And every time Bridget brought up Pride and Prejudice I kind of tuned out. I just didn’t understand why Bridget (or anyone, for that matter) got all swoony about Mr. Darcy. I thought he was a huge jerk. I didn’t understand why Lizzy Bennet married him.
I think I completed my Austen collection in college. As much as I wanted to love Austen, I didn’t really like Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, or Mansfield Park.
Even though I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice, I wanted to see the movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley that came out in 2005. I ended up waiting to Netflix it. But that was it; I finally got it. I understood that Mr. Darcy was, in fact, a swoon-worthy romantic hero. I saw that Mr. Wickham was despicable. I immediately pulled Mrs. Geesey’s old copy off the shelf and this time I loved it. Once I understood the plot I was able to appreciate the book.
My success with Pride and Prejudice inspired me to re-read the rest of Austen. That also went well. From that point on I had no qualms about calling Jane Austen my favorite author. I now read at least one Austen novel a year and I generally re-read all of them at least every three years. In case you’re interested, if I were to list the six Austen novels from most to least favorite, it would look like this: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park.
I may be a Janeite, but I am not a member of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America). Not yet, anyway. Nor am I a purist, the kind to get my knickers in a twist about, well, any number of things, really. Purists derided the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, I love it. I know there are some who are aghast at the horror mash-ups that started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As soon as I heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I wanted to get my hands on it. And I loved it. I was so impressed with the way zombies were seamlessly blended in to the source material. I imagine there are those who dislike the ever-expanding array of sequels on the market, but I’ve read a bunch of them that I liked (from the obvious sequels like Mr. Darcy’s Diary and Death Comes to Pemberley to the novels about Janeites like Austenland and Jane Austen Ruined My Life).
Okay, I’m at almost 1,100 words, it’s time to stop. (Now you see why I kept putting this off.) And besides, I think you get the point. I love Jane Austen and I will forever be grateful to Mrs. Geesey for giving me Pride and Prejudice instead of something else.