Jane Austen Novels Ranked

To round out the recent Jane Austen coverage on my blog, I thought I’d go through and rank all* of her books from my least favorite to favorite**.

*I have only read her six completed full-length novels! I have not read her complete works and at this point in my life I do not intend to, but never say never.

**Please note that my word choice is deliberate: this is not a ranking of her novels from worst to best. That list would look very different and is not the aim of this blog post, before you get mad at me. Respectful disagreement about my personal ranking is, of course, more than welcome.

I’d also like to take a moment to talk generally about this experience of reading through her novels. Before this year, the only Jane Austen novel I’d read was Northanger Abbey, which had such a negligible impact on my life that my Goodreads review in its entirety was, and I quote: “This was the single most inoffensive reading experience of my life. I didn’t like this book. I didn’t dislike this book. I have no opinion on this book and I have absolutely nothing else to say.”

That said, I always knew that Northanger Abbey was a somewhat ridiculous place to start, and I always intended to give her a proper chance at some point. That opportunity presented itself in January of this year when a group of friends and I decided that we would read through her novels together in a book club, meeting on the final Sunday of each month to talk about them.

Reading them in this context was a good choice for me, because it really helped keep my momentum up throughout this project. What I very, very quickly discovered was: Jane Austen is not for me. And that is okay! I fully acknowledge the merit of her works while also acknowledging that her stories and characters have very little impact on me. I don’t love her prose, I don’t enjoy immersing myself in her stories, and I never feel like picking her books back up when I put them down.

But I’m glad I tried. Reading through Austen’s novels was always a very long-term bucket list goal of mine, so I’m glad I just went ahead and plowed through them all in six months. I also enjoyed reading them roughly in the order they were written, and seeing the change in her style over time.

My recommended reading order, if you were thinking of doing this: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

Now, without further ado:

6. Emma

Coming in strong with my most controversial opinion: I hated Emma. We’re off to a good start though in illustrating that my personal taste does not align with what I necessarily believe is the ‘correct’ ranking. Do I think this is Austen’s worst novel, not at all. But spending 500 pages with a character I couldn’t stand while the plot effectively went nowhere felt like a tremendous waste of my time and I actually flung this book across the room when I finished; the reading experience was that agonizing for me.

Full review here.

5. Sense and Sensibility

That this was Austen’s first published novel shows — the characters aren’t particularly convincing, the structure is odd and unbalanced, and it’s much too long for what it is. I also found the resolution almost comically unsatisfying and I have to conclude that if Austen had written this book later in her career, Elinor would have ended up with a different love interest. The whole ‘meeting of two minds’ thing that’s so characteristic of most of her romantic pairings is conspicuously absent here, and the whole project falls a bit flat because of it.

Full review here.

4. Pride and Prejudice

Though it was only published two years later, Pride and Prejudice is a much tighter and more cohesive work than Sense and Sensibility, and it’s not difficult to discern why this is largely considered Austen’s masterpiece. Not a single word is wasted in this novel, the character development is sublime, and there is of course a reason that Lizzy and Darcy are the couple of hers that have most endured in our cultural consciousness. Ironically, all of this novel’s assets are also its faults for me — it’s almost too good, it’s almost too neat and tidy. I read it, agreed that ‘yes, that was indeed excellent,’ and I honestly haven’t thought about it since.

Full review here.

3. Northanger Abbey

Slots 3 and 4 on my list was where the tension between ‘best’ and ‘favorite’ was at its strongest when I was trying to figure out where to place these. I don’t think there is a single argument to be made for Northanger Abbey being a better book than Pride and Prejudice, because it simply isn’t. But I can’t deny that I had a lot more fun reading this one. It’s weird, it’s messy, it’s unapologetically absurd, and I enjoyed it all the more for those things. I’m very glad I ended up rereading this one, because I do think I underestimated it the first time I read it. Major points, however, are docked from how much I despise Cathy and Henry’s relationship — never has the Worldly Man and Naive Ingenue pairing rubbed me the wrong way as much as it does here.

Full review here.

2. Persuasion

There’s a huge jump between slots 3 and 2 on this list; Northanger Abbey was merely enjoyable; Persuasion was utterly brilliant. A surprisingly melancholy work, Persuasion marks a real departure for Austen, and one that I’m sure I would have enjoyed following, had she lived longer and been able to write more. I love this novel’s subtlety and maturity; that it’s less ‘witty’ than its predecessors wasn’t exactly a downside for me, as I don’t find the Austenian wit a huge draw to begin with.

Full review here.

1. Mansfield Park

It’s only right that this list is bookended with my two most controversial opinions — 9 out of 10 times on ‘Jane Austen ranked’ lists, you’ll see these two flipped. While Emma is largely regarded to be one of her best novels, Mansfield Park is generally accepted to be her worst; it’s quieter, less romantic, less humorous, and darker than her other works; its heroine is timid and passive. It doesn’t invite the reader to indulge in a fantasy of Regency England — it’s a bit more like Jane Eyre, fusing a bildungsroman structure with stark social commentary. I absolutely adored this book for all of these reasons and more.

Full review here.


What’s your personal Jane Austen ranking?

book review: Persuasion by Jane Austen





PERSUASION by Jane Austen
★★★★★
originally published in 1817




I thought Persuasion was brilliant and when I finished I briefly flirted with the idea that it might be my favorite Austen novel. I ultimately decided that I was downplaying my feelings for Mansfield Park in favor of what I feel might be a technically better book, but I can no longer deny that Mansfield Park touched me in a way that Persuasion did not. 

Still, this is a damn good book. Decidedly more mature and melancholy than most of Austen’s works, Persuasion is probably the slowest of all of Austen’s slow burns, but I felt that the pacing was so deliberate and the setup so juicy that I couldn’t fault it for that. (Plus, it’s 200 pages shorter than Emma.)

Continuing on in my love for Austen’s more reserved heroines, I found Anne Elliot to be a brilliant creation. Having once been persuaded by her family to refuse the proposal of naval officer Frederick Wentworth, Anne finds herself eight years later confronted with Wentworth once again and is forced to face the feelings for him that she thought she had long buried. Interestingly, not a whole lot of interaction between Anne and Wentworth ensues (and there isn’t much plot to speak of beyond a secondary character having a traumatic head injury) — but still Anne and Wentworth’s relationship is one of my favorite things Austen has written. This is an unfalteringly internal work, and Austen chronicles the growth in Anne with such convincing subtlety that this novel’s realism can’t help but to be marveled at.

Some might fault this book for being less witty and humorous than her others, but I think her wit shines through in her piercing observations about class and the shifting social hierarchy. It’s certainly a less lively novel than any of her earlier works, but that’s what I admire so much about it: that Austen was able to create such a compelling and insular story that’s captivating not for its sarcasm and banter, but for its earnest and reflective depiction of two people finding their way back into each other’s lives at the right moment.

book review: Emma by Jane Austen






EMMA by Jane Austen
★★☆☆☆
originally published in 1815




I know that sometimes when reviewing classics I have to fight against the impulse to defer to centuries’ worth of scholarly analysis when my own opinion doesn’t align with the masses: but in this case, I will confidently own the fact that I hated every single second of this book. And I am sure that I will be met with backlash, but this is a subjective blog review. My opinion on this book quite literally does not matter. Please keep scrolling if this offends your Austenite sensibilities. But I do want everyone to know that I think Emma is garbage.

However, what I will also own is the fact that I didn’t choose a particularly prudent moment in my life to read this book. I am going through a situation that made being asked to sympathize with a privileged, entitled, manipulative protagonist feel like having teeth pulled. I know that these qualities objectively make Emma Woodhouse a more interesting character — but I quite literally could not care less! There is nothing on earth I would have resented reading about more in that moment.

Anyway, personal baggage aside, I found this book to be tremendously bloated and self-indulgent. I know that Austen novels aren’t exactly page turners on the best of days, but my god, there was not a single thing here that managed to earn my investment. When I wasn’t irrationally furious about the way Emma was treating Harriet (ok, fine, maybe my personal baggage isn’t totally aside), I was bored out of my mind. I can imagine that a lot of readers are compelled by the fact that Emma doesn’t need to marry in the way that other Austen heroines do, but I found that that took away the very limited intrigue that Austen novels hold for me.

I should also confess that I just don’t really *get* that famous Austenian wit that readers find so endearing, and which seems to be a huge draw for Emma in particular. I just didn’t find this book particularly charming or funny or lively and if that element is taken away, what on earth is even left?

The one thing I will hand this book is that the narration is executed very well, but that doesn’t justify there being 500 pages of it. And make no mistake, the length IS the problem. I felt that a similar length was warranted in Mansfield Park which used those pages to develop theme and social commentary; Emma, in contrast, unfolds like a very straightforward parable, whose trajectory and moral can be summed up in a single sentence, and I have very little patience for this kind of book, where I feel like I get the point about 20 pages in and am then made to suffer through an agonizingly slow pantomime acted out by dull, lifeless, and/or irritating characters.

I should probably give Emma a second chance at some point in my life but I can fairly confidently say that I do not want to, so, here we are. Sorry. At least I will always have Clueless.

book review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen






MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
★★★★★
originally published in 1814




Full disclosure that I wouldn’t exactly call myself the biggest Austen fan — I can recognize where Pride and Prejudice is romantic and Sense and Sensibility is charming, but personally I remain curiously unmoved by most of her works. But I still went ahead and read through all of them this year, and a few months after having finished this project, the one that stands out to me head and shoulders above the rest is Mansfield Park. This is the only Austen novel I actively enjoyed reading; the only one I thought about when I put it down; the only one that I actually think will be worth revisiting. I’m sure some of you will think I’m being a contrarian just for the sake of it, given that this is widely regarded as her worst novel, but hopefully I can convince you of some of its merits by the end of this (highly anticipated????) review.

One thing that I tend to look for in books, strictly as a personal preference, is high stakes, which are something that’s conspicuously lacking from most Austen novels. This isn’t a criticism; I can’t fault her for something she isn’t trying to do. But it’s the reason I can’t really get into romance narratives; I need there to be something bigger going on than ‘will x and y end up together’. (This isn’t confined solely to the romance genre; it’s the reason Much Ado About Nothing is one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays. Sorry.)

Mansfield Park just had that elevated je ne sais quoi that I was looking for. Unlike most of Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is poor, with little to no prospects in her life, until she’s plucked from obscurity at age 11 to live with her wealthy cousins at the titular Mansfield Park, who give her quite the Cinderella treatment, with the exception of her cousin Edmund, who actually dares to pay her the time of day. Consequently, Fanny is nothing like the brash Emma Woodhouse or the self-assured Lizzy Bennet or any of the other bold, brazen Austen heroines that are so universally adored — and it’s because she quite literally cannot afford to be. That Fanny’s social status is so precarious added a layer of intrigue for me — the stakes may not be sky high, but suddenly there’s something darker and more sinister at play. 

Fanny herself is, you guessed it!, my favorite heroine for similar reasons. It’s easy to dismiss Fanny for being dull, quiet, and submissive, but the context of her upbringing can’t be ignored. In her rousing defense of Fanny Price from a 2014 Paris Review essay, Tara Isabella Burton writes:

“The qualities of your typical Austen heroine—charming, forward, quick at learning—are rooted in privilege […] And so Fanny is never given the chance to exhibit the qualities of a “good” Austen heroine; she’s told from childhood that she is dull, stupid, and inadequate until she herself internalizes “my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness.” […] In wanting Fanny to be cleverer, bolder, sexier than she is—in wanting her to be more like Mary—we become complicit in the world of Mansfield Park, and in the politics of exclusion through which Mansfield thrives.”

This is what I find so dismaying about the way a lot of people talk about Mansfield Park. To be bored by the novel is one thing, fair enough; but to hate Fanny for her timidity when she is a poor, neglected, emotionally abused child living under the thumb of her cruel and capricious family who expect her to perform nothing but gratitude while failing to allow her a seat at their table is something I can’t quite understand. I also can’t imagine reading a passage like this and not being moved, or maybe this just hit too hard when I think back on the experience of being a Shy Kid who used to live in the background of other people’s stories:

“She could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both, to have any comfort in having been sought by either.”

When Fanny stands up for herself by denying a wealthy suitor that everyone in her life wants her to accept, that moment hits all the harder for the fact that you know exactly what this moment of defiance is costing her. For me, that moment is the boldest display of strength that any Austen character shows.

Choosing to frame this story around Fanny in the first place is also a choice worth examining; her foil, Mary Crawford, an interesting character in her own right, has more in common with Austen’s other heroines than Fanny does. This book isn’t interested in selling the reader a romantic fantasy of living in Regency England, a narrative which could have been achieved quite easily by telling this story through Mary’s eyes — more than in any other work, the social commentary takes center stage, and it was this too that compelled me.

I’ve heard some people say that this book is more intriguing than it is enjoyable, but I have to disagree there too. The sequence of chapters leading up to the play is the most tension I have personally experienced in any Austen novel; I flew through those pages. Say what you will about Edmund and how much or little you personally would want to date him, but I felt Fanny’s love for Edmund in a way that I couldn’t personally feel in a single other Austen novel. I’m not saying that her other heroines weren’t actually in love; just that their love wasn’t communicated to me in a deeper way than simply reading the words on a page. Fanny felt like a real person to me in a way her characters often do not.

This is easily Austen’s most didactic and most conservative work, and my enjoyment of it isn’t meant to be taken as a tacit endorsement of every idea she espouses here about Christian virtue and class and social status. In fact, I agree with almost none of it. But I don’t enjoy books for being a series of observations on life and society that I happen to agree with; I enjoy them for compelling me, moving me, challenging me, and making me think. Mansfield Park achieved all of that and none of Austen’s other novels did, and for that it is my favorite, and one that I wish more people would spend some time with.

book review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen




NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
★★★☆☆
originally published in 1817



I thought I had the full measure of Northanger Abbey when I first read it in 2017, so I nearly opted to skip it when my Jane Austen book club picked it up, but I decided to give it a re-read and I’m very glad I did. Having now read a couple of other Jane Austen novels, I found this book both richer and thornier the second time around, and also a hell of a lot more fun. 

While I did know it was satire the first time around, I didn’t think that made for a more pleasurable reading experience–though in retrospect I think it’s because I still insisted on treating this book with a level of seriousness that it doesn’t ask of the reader. This book is absurd and unapologetically so, and once that clicked for me it ended up working incredibly well–arguably even better than Pride and Prejudice, which is a practically faultless book, unlike Northanger Abbey which is something of a structural mess, but which still left me a bit colder than this one did.

What I continue to dislike about Northanger Abbey is its central romance. There’s no sense that Cathy has met her match with Henry Tilney, or he with her; instead their dynamic where her youthful naivety meets his playful condescension makes my skin crawl. (As someone who’s accustomed to liking books about unlikable characters, this ended up being much more of a sticking point for me than I thought it would, and probably points to my lack of familiarity with the romance genre.)

Anyway, I think I partially like this book for how unpolished and imperfect it is, and of the three Austen novels I’ve read so far, I think this is the one I’m most likely to return to. I keep thinking about it while Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have almost left my mind entirely.

some brief thoughts on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen



PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
★★★★☆
originally published in 1813




Pride and Prejudice is a lovelier, funnier, and more confident book than Sense and Sensibility and I certainly enjoyed it much more than its predecessor. Very glad to have finally read this one and I’m just as charmed by Lizzy Bennet as most readers have been for centuries. I still feel like I’m missing something though, I must confess. While I chalked up some of my Sense and Sensibility apathy to that book’s relative messiness and immaturity, Pride and Prejudice is inarguably an air-tight work–and yet, one that I can’t say I loved reading from start to finish. I’m not sure what this is. I don’t get on with Austen’s writing style as well as I do with other classic authors but I’m also wondering if the stakes in her books are simply too low for me–this is a personal taste thing, not a criticism. Stay tuned for more installments of me articulating my muddled thoughts on Austen over the next few months. 

book review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen




SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen
★★★☆☆
originally published in 1811



Sense and Sensibility was only my second Jane Austen after Northanger Abbey–I’m working to read them all in order from her earliest works to latest, which I should complete within six months now that I have the structure of a monthly Jane Austen book club guiding me. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll become an Austen-ite by the end of this–so far my experience with her first two books has been very tepid, though I’m certainly excited to see things take a turn for the more interesting as her writing matures.

I actually don’t have a lot to say about Sense and Sensibility, in spite of attending a very interesting near-two hour long book club discussion the other day. I thought this book was fine but also frustrating to spend 400 pages with; characters are largely flat and undergo very little development and the resolution was almost comically unsatisfying. That this was Austen’s first published novel shows; it feels rough around the edges, though regrettably not even in an interesting way. I didn’t hate reading it, and the fact that I’m an Elinor to a fault certainly helped earn my investment, but I’m looking forward to seeing how her style develops and hoping that her later books work more to my taste and expectations. 

mini reviews #2: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s nonfiction & various classics

Still making my way through my backlog of Goodreads mini reviews to transfer over to WordPress – if you missed my first installment of mini reviews you can check that out here!  Here’s the next round:

22738563WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
★★★☆☆
date read: April 5, 2018
Vintage, 2014

A really great introduction to feminism which would have been very valuable to me a decade ago. As it stands, I didn’t take a whole lot away from this, or even see familiar points articulated in novel ways… but I’m not the target audience. This is an important book to gift to your friends and relatives who still think ‘feminist’ is a dirty word.

33585392DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
★★★☆☆
date read: April 28, 2018
Knopf, 2017

Between this and We Should All Be Feminists I don’t think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s nonfiction is for me, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have merit. I just didn’t get anything out of either of these essays that I haven’t already seen articulated by others in more thorough and nuanced ways. And once again, as with We Should All Be Feminists, I was disappointed with the lack of inclusion toward the LGBT community. But I did enjoy the particular insights into Nigerian and Igbo culture, and there’s a lot to be said about the brevity with which she is able to articulate her points, which makes this an accessible starting point for anyone unfamiliar with feminist theory.

6473195THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE by Agatha Christie
★★★★☆
date read: March 30, 2018
William Morrow, 2009, originally published in 1930

Yet again Christie manages to craft a mystery so intricate it’s all you can do to keep up, never mind get ahead of her. 4 stars instead of 5 as it took me ages to get invested in these characters for whatever reason, and because I got tired of Clement remarking upon how clever Miss Marple is (we get it). But the resolution was fantastic and I thought the humor in this one in particular was great.

92517THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams
★★★★★
date read: January 21, 2018
originally published in 1945

Thoughtful, entrancing, achingly sad. Worth reading the script even if you’ve already seen the play live (I have not) because the detail in Williams’ stage directions is so vivid.

 

 

50398NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 29, 2017
originally published in 1818

This was the single most inoffensive reading experience of my life. I didn’t like this book. I didn’t dislike this book. I have no opinion on this book and I have absolutely nothing else to say.

Side note: this was my first Jane Austen (not counting the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice that I tried reading when I was 13 before getting bored), and I’m aware that it’s widely regarded as one of her weaker novels, so I’m not letting it put me off Austen for good.  The one that appeals to me the most is Mansfield Park so I’ll probably read that next, though I have no idea when that will be.

Feel free to comment if you’d like to talk about any of these in more detail!