Hugh Thomson / Hulton Archive / Getty
Before she was a writer, Jane Austen was a reader. A reader, moreover, within a family of readers, who would gather in her father’s rectory to read aloud from the work of authors such as Samuel Johnson, Frances Burney, and William Cowper—as well as, eventually, Jane’s own works-in-progress.
Not surprisingly, then, in Austen’s novels, the act of reading is a key indication of how a character should initially be judged, and of major turning points in her development. For Austen, the way a character reads is emblematic of other forms of interpretation: One’s skills in comprehending written language are linked to one’s ability to understand life, other people, and oneself.
Characters’ choices of books are a frequent target of Austen’s satire. Persuasion, for example, opens with a vignette that might otherwise seem insignificant: the reading habits of the protagonist’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, who “for his own amusement, never took up any book” except one—the record of British families that contains his own lineage. In Pride and Prejudice, the insufferable clergyman Mr. Collins chooses to orate from James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women one afternoon because (as he piously proclaims) he abstains from novels. This episode clearly represents what Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland’s love interest in Northanger Abbey, means when he says, “The person … who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” On the other hand, Catherine’s friend Isabella Thorpe takes great pleasure in novels—but not high-quality ones. Accordingly, Isabella’s character turns out to be as excessive, hyperbolic, dramatic, and deceptive as the Gothic tales she recommends to Catherine.
Northanger Abbey illustrates the dangers of undiscerning reading—of mistaking fanciful tales of mere entertainment for those that offer truthful insights into real human experience. As the novel’s heroine, Catherine, anticipates her arrival at Northanger Abbey, she imagines encountering the sorts of fantastical events that have captivated her in fiction. She relishes the idea that the ancient abbey’s “long, damp passages … were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun.”
Her head thus brimming with images of delicious horrors, Catherine passes most of her first night in the Tilney family’s ancestral home by mining a large cabinet in her room for the secrets she’s sure it holds—only to find a roll of old housekeeping receipts. Her embarrassment at this harmless adventure is nothing, however, compared with her later mortification upon realizing that her wild suspicions about the sudden death of the family’s mother are not only quite unfounded, but also could have destroyed her relationship with Henry. Yet, despite being a naive reader, Catherine is teachable. She comes to see that as “charming” as she finds Gothic romances, “it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.”
In the early 19th century, novels—a term frequently associated with the Gothic romances that form Catherine’s early reading tastes—had yet to be fully respected in the world of polite letters. Austen’s realist work contributed significantly to the artistic sophistication of the developing genre. The narrator of Northanger Abbey appears to articulate Austen’s own view in declaring novels to be works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Austen’s works exemplify these narrative possibilities, and extol characters who are capable of appreciating them.
Anne Elliot of Persuasion is just such a character. As I discuss in On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, Anne exemplifies the virtue of patience, an essential skill in reading—and living—well. The act of submitting oneself to the demands of a slowly unfolding plot entails an exercise of patience similar to that required in navigating the twists and turns (and disappointments) of life. When Persuasion opens, Anne is patiently awaiting a turn in her own life story, having long ago broken off an engagement with Captain Frederick Wentworth and borne the heavy burden of regret in the years since.
When Anne discusses literature with her new friend Captain Benwick, who is grieving over the death of his fiancée, she concludes that Benwick’s reading, which consists mainly of Romantic poetry, has deepened his sorrow in lost love (just as Marianne Dashwood’s does in Sense and Sensibility). Anne recommends that he read more prose. As a skilled reader, she understands how each mode affects the spirit differently under different circumstances, and though she loves both prose and poetry—even reciting poetry “worthy of being read” to herself while walking—she recognizes the distinction between life and art.
This conversation with Benwick helps Anne to gain the critical distance she needs to perceive her own situation more accurately. After recognizing that she, like Benwick, has succumbed in her own way to heartbreak, she realizes that she has not, as she had mistakenly thought, lost all hope of regaining Wentworth’s love. And when Wentworth renews his marriage proposal—in the form of a letter—she is able to put aside her own pride, prejudices, and doubts to readily comprehend the intent of the letter’s author. In so doing, she finds happiness at last.
Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet lacks some of Anne’s maturity, but is a more reliable reader than Catherine Morland (as indicated metaphorically by Elizabeth’s famous “fine eyes”). What’s more—as seen in Miss Bingley’s attempt to insult Elizabeth by calling her “a great reader” after Elizabeth turns down a card game in favor of a book—she reads thoughtfully in a society where women are not expected to. In contrast to her pedantic sister Mary, who is so absorbed in scholarly books that she is ill-adjusted to the real world, Elizabeth understands that reading, though worthwhile, is no substitute for living. Thus, when Mr. Darcy tries to discuss literature with Elizabeth at a ball, she objects, “No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else.”
Yet despite being a perceptive and careful reader, Elizabeth needs improvement. The novel’s central conflict lies in her misreading of Darcy’s personality, and its plot turns on the moment when she’s forced—again, through reading—to reconsider. To emphasize the importance of critical interpretation (both for the novel’s characters and for its readers), Austen presents this plot point in two acts. First, Darcy’s voice takes over the narrative with a letter to Elizabeth that appears without commentary. Here, the audience reads along with Elizabeth as Darcy explains all the circumstances that have led her to, based on her partial knowledge, misjudge his character and refuse his marriage proposal.
Then, Austen begins a new chapter that takes the audience into Elizabeth’s thoughts as she rereads the letter. At first, she denies and resists this new interpretation of the facts, so dramatically divergent from her own. But as she pores over the letter again, she takes it in “with somewhat clearer attention,” “weigh[s] every circumstance,” and “deliberate[s] on the probability of each statement” until she realizes “how differently did everything now appear,” and how she has, in truth, been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.”
All along, as Austen’s audience reads about Elizabeth Bennet, they also read with her. And in this way, as Elizabeth revises her reading of characters and situations she was once certain about, the readers of Pride and Prejudice do so too. As they see her “first impressions” (Austen’s original title for the novel) through her eyes, they share her misreading of Darcy’s character. Recoiling with her at Darcy’s unmistakable pride, the readers become prejudiced. They are duped into trusting Elizabeth’s interpretations because her keen insight, sharp wit, and self-assurance make her judgment seem eminently trustworthy. Reading the novel is therefore a lesson in interpretive humility. As Austen’s characters learn to question their own interpretations, Austen’s readers learn, too, that the way one reads—not just what one reads—is important.
Throughout her novels, Austen satirizes both literary works and readers that represent two kinds of excess: those that are overly moralizing, and those that are overly romanticized. Shallow, pietistic, or narcissistic readers such as Isabella Thorpe, Mr. Collins, Sir Walter Elliot, and even, initially, Catherine Morland, are blind to the power of good books to offer both instruction and delight. Austen’s wisest, most admirable characters are those who turn to books for knowledge of things outside themselves—truths about the human nature common to us all. For these readers, among them Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet, good character is cultivated in learning to read literature, other people, and oneself well.