Having recently reread Jane Austen’s work, I was immediately ready to make my own list when I came across a ranking of her major work by someone who teaches it. Amy Elizabeth Smith makes the case for her choices with a brief and careful analysis of each work, but I was all about the game—how did our lists stack up against each other?
As it turns out, they’re quite different:
Northanger Abbey Emma
Persuasion Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice Mansfield Park
Emma Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility Northanger Abbey
Mansfield Park Persuasion
I don’t think either list has much meaning for other readers except as an illustration of the idea that we tend to assign value according to our preferences. I made my choices on instinct but in looking at the list, I suspect Northanger Abbey is near the bottom because I’m not that interested in gothic fiction and so not that interested in a send-up of it. My other choices seem to be about character and place. Just as I never much cared for Mr. Rogers’s imaginary neighborhood and neighbors when my children were watching him but did like the Sesame Street gang, I have preferences in Austen’s worlds. In essence—and particularly since I reread these novels without much break for reading other books—I liked the books according to how much I enjoyed being in them and how successful they were in banishing my impatience with lives that are often devoid of meaningful work and all about achieving the perfect marriage.
In general, as I read through Austen’s work, I was impressed anew with her shrewd understanding of human nature and the energy of her scenes, her deep wit, pitch-perfect dialogue, and ability to build suspense. I also made two discoveries about her minor work. Love and Friendship, identified as “Austen juvenilia,” makes a good case for why the early, rough work of masterful writers is best left unpublished (I gave up on it, which is rare for me); the epistolary novel Lady Susan, with its ridiculously scrunched summary of an ending, is a real showcase for Austen’s brilliance as she orders the events in the letters so the reader can delight in personally piecing together the awfulness of Lady Susan’s character.
But that does not mean that you would be intrigued by Lady Susan as I was or that you would put Persuasion firmly at the bottom of your Austen list. We like what we like and even our likes can follow our moods and the amount of patience we bring to our reading. The geniuses of the craft can fail to woo us; our attraction to a story by a writer with lesser skills can mean we slide right past its weaknesses. It’s a small point I”m making but I think a valid one: we have our dress-up moments as readers; we also have our moments when all we really need is the cereal box.