This week, The Broke and Bookish have selected as their topic “Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X” which is a fairly broad topic. I have decided to pick books that I would select if I were teaching a course on Austen-mania. I recently read the short story anthology Dancing with Mr Darcy and was interested by the words of its editor Sarah Waters, who observed that all too often, Austen fans concentrate on Mr Darcy, reducing Austen’s work to a cartoonish kind of fandom. I adore Pride and Prejudice but understand what she means, in that there is far more to appreciate than the simple fact that Colin Firth looked rather hot in a wet shirt once in 1995. Anyway, I sat down to think about which books have been written about Jane Austen or her works and which I feel are really original. Austen may be dismissed as prim or staid, there is so much going on within her novels, so much fun, enough to keep people reading them for two centuries and inspiring people to come up with amazing books of their own. So obviously, the original books come first but here are the spin-off works which would be on my syllabus if I wanted to teach someone how to be a fan of Austen, which is a terrific thing to be.
This is the only novel to make it on to this list – there have been dozens, nay hundreds, of books written to expand on her novels. Generally they are ‘male perspective’ stories or attempts to complete her unfinished works, but most commonly of all there are the Pride-and-Prejudice fan fiction novels. This is not one such. While part of its intrigue undoubtedly comes from the fact that the movements going on upstairs are only too familiar, what Baker has actually created is an original novel all of her own which finally turns the reader’s attention towards those shadowy figures who exist in the corners of all of Austen’s work – the servants.
While remaining very light-hearted, Emily Brand’s guide to Regency dating (as presented by none other than Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy himself) is a delight. Witty and packed with fascinating detail about the courtship rituals of Georgian Britain, Brand’s book is pure fun.
Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers, Margaret Sullivan
This book is very, very high on the I Want list. I have visited it on several occasions in the shop and it really is lovely – hint, people who love me, hint . It offers a complete chronicle of all the covers which have graced the front covers of Austen’s novels down the centuries, including even the most alarming and giving a fascinating history of book cover fashions (always more interesting to me than clothes fashion) as well as being a beautiful piece of Austen memorabilia.
I adored this book – it was one of those true treasures which feel as if they have been designed to appeal to me on a personal level. Mullan has constructed his book with incredible care – each chapter flows seamlessly into the next, unlocking a whole new dimension to the books as they do so. Literary theory is never more readable or indeed more entertaining than it is here.
I read this last year and it was amazing. Taking an apparently random object as the focus of each chapter, Byrne puts Austen’s life into a greater context and seems to unveil a far clearer image of who the woman herself truly was. A really innovative approach to biography and a highly readable book.
Lizzy Bennet’s Diary, Marcia Cross
I have discussed at length before how much I enjoyed the Youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (if you haven’t seen them yet, by the by, you should) but I would like to put out another shout for one of my favourite Christmas presents of last year – the pop up version of Pride and Prejudice which tells the well-known story along with beautiful illustrations. It has a lovely ‘hand-finished’ quality as Lizzy relates her life to the reader, the tribulations of making her father a waistcoat and all the various events of a rather busy year. I may have finished it on Christmas Day itself but it has made for lovely bedtime re-reading material.
Providing an insight into the less-reported aspects of Regency Britain, what husband-and-wife historian team the Adkinses do not know about Austen’s England is not worth knowing. With observations on every aspect of life from birth to marriage, illness, and death, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England provides a background to the novels along with a whole host of trivia which answers every question you never even knew you had.
Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin
I don’t think I’m going to get this finished in time to include it for my Austen in August project but I wanted to put it on the list anyway. Claire Tomalin is a biographer beyond compare and although I’m not terribly far in, her attention to detail and clear prose make this a must-read for all Austen fans.
It is a source of some dismay to me that there are innumerable ‘child-friendly’ Shakespeare-related books etc but a severe shortage of them for the Brontes and Austen. I would have loved this as a child and indeed, this is another book which is high on the I Want list. With facsimiles of her letters, pictures, facts and more – this would make a wonderful coffee table book – very much the chocolate cake book rather than the vegetables (I think that bit would be fulfilled by reading Eavesdropping) but a definite fan-pleaser.
Marrying Mr Darcy: The Pride and Prejudice Card Game
This last one is not a book. It is a card game which I discovered in Oxford’s board game cafe, Thirsty Meeples. Myself and a friend had a fine time puzzling out the rules but once we got there, we had great high jinks negotiating the Regency marriage market. I myself played as Lizzie Bennet but failed to win Mr Darcy’s heart and ended up wed to Mr Denny (Wickham also proposed but I said no) but my friend had better luck, playing as Jane and marrying Mr Bingley. I went back a few weeks later and tried to persuade my boyfriend that we should play it, I even offered to let him be Lizzie but sadly he said no. Another I Want item on the list though – I think I have enough Austen fan friends to make this a worthwhile purchase.
So these are my picks – please do let me know if there are any other Austen-related books which you feel should be included! Austen in August continues for one more week and I hope to finish a few more books for review in that time frame so watch this space …