Here’s a question from Sue and her book club in Chicago.
Sue: Which, in your opinion, is Jane Austen’s best novel?
Thanks for this, Sue. It’s an extremely difficult question to answer for the reason that the answer is usually the last one I’ve read. Because the wit is woven deeply into the fabric of Austen’s prose, I tend to forget how much pleasure each novel gives me until I come around to reading the novel afresh.
But looking back on each as though remembering a landscape, I think Pride and Prejudice stands out for its sheer entertainment value, wit and wonderful characters, and for the symmetry of its plot, while Emma has all the attributes necessary for a modern — and, by some definitions, realist — novel. Emma of all Austen’s novels gives us the most lifelike conflict between the emotional desires of the protagonist on the one hand and the demands of her environment on the other.
Emma causes most of her own problems, as people tend to do in real life, and her life’s goals are attained when, in modern parlance, she ‘gets over herself’. This is a similar pattern to most of Nick Hornby’s novels (written in the last couple of decades) and it works so well for many of the same reasons: a particular kind of honesty on the part of the writer, a painful process of change and growth on the part of the protagonist. There is also that delicious sense that the reader guesses things in advance that Emma, with all her blind spots, misses.
Having said that, each time I’ve come back to Northanger Abbey, I feel as though my memory has seriously under-rated it. Ditto with Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion is such a likeable novel too.
The only novel I have trouble swallowing is Mansfield Park. Although I admire all the writing craft as much as her other novels, I’m one of those readers who finds something unsatisfactory in the way protagonist Fanny Price is put on a moral pedestal. Members of her slave-owning adoptive family are often spiteful and shallow yet she clearly prefers their company to that of her own humble family, e.g. her “slatternly” mother of whom she is ashamed although her only crime appears to be poverty. I come away from Mansfield Park feeling exasperated.
If there is a perfect symmetry to Pride and Prejudice, I think the reverse is the case with Mansfield Park. The novel asserts Fanny’s moral superiority but falls a long way short of proving it.
But there is evidence than Austen might have been aware of this. While Austen had been merely satirizing the critics by calling Pride and Prejudice “too light and bright and sparkling,” Mansfield Park’s more moralizing tone suggests she just might have been overcompensating against any future charge of frivolity. In any case, she didn’t make the mistake of creating another heroine like Fanny Price.
Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is good, yes, but Austen wisely doesn’t try to portray her as a saint. She suffers for her own mistake (rejecting Captain Wentworth when young). Through Austen’s handling of this demure but believable heroine, Persuasion has that sense of maturity and balance that makes it a fitting finale to the Austen canon.
So that’s my answer. All of them are my favourite at different times, except one.
Feel free to respond with your own view of Austen’s best novel!