In 11th grade, I had three options for English courses: English, Honors English, or AP English. Interestingly enough, not all the classes were taught by the same teacher, as my classmates had become accustomed to. Choosing AP English meant summer work, being in a class with seniors, and having the hardest English teacher – possibly the hardest teacher, period – in the school. She was so difficult that after several years as the 9th grade English teacher, the school deemed her classes too hard, so they bumped her up to 12th grade.
Some of my closest friends opted to take AP, so I decided it would be a good option for me as well. If nothing else, we could all live in misery together.
Though we were often miserable, studying vocab terms over lunch and writing essays everyday, there was a bright side to all this: I discovered some of my favorite authors.
I’ve talked before about how AP English set off my love for 19th-century literature and eventually led me to Anne Brontё, but I’ve talked far less about another favorite: Jane Austen. So on this day, the anniversary of the author’s 1817 death, I would like to talk about Austen’s impact on my life.
I first began Pride and Prejudice the summer before that AP course when a friend of mine let me borrow her copy after raving about the novel. Unfortunately, I was too busy reading and doing the assignments related to How to Read Literature Like a Professor to fully grasp the novel’s importance. However, as several months passed, and I was getting into the groove of AP English, despite not really liking the novels we read, we finally got to the lessons on the 1800s and began Pride and Prejudice.
I loved it immediately.
Austen was the first woman writer we read in class, so I was instantly taken with her. As I continued really reading, I realized just how witty her writing was (really, is) and was amazed at its ability to stand the test of time. I loved Elizabeth Bennet and thoroughly enjoyed mocking Mr. Collins with my friends. Perhaps what made this book really great was it was one of the first we actually discussed in class, instead of just sitting around writing paragraphs about it. We spent more time on it than, say, Beowulf, so it was easier to understand.
Pride and Prejudice set off a domino effect of sorts for me in terms of literature. Next in class, we read the Brontёs and Oscar Wilde, but I wasn’t yet done with Austen (nor was I done with those other authors). I bought Emma and Persuasion, I borrowed Northanger Abbey, and I loved them all. I never forgot Austen and thought about those four works often and couldn’t wait to dive into the rest of her novels.
I finally had the chance and time to do it during the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. I excitedly added a course simply titled “Jane Austen” to my schedule the semester earlier and hoped I could find like-minded individuals in the class who shared my love of 19th-century novels.
Luckily, I found a kindred spirit of sorts in the professor, who claimed to read Austen’s novels every year and was so obsessed with the author that she collected newspaper clippings and other things related to Austen. She loved Jane, I loved Jane, so by nature I loved the class. Seeing just how passionate about Jane Austen (and a shirtless Colin Firth in the BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation) she was increased my passion for the author and the class.
In the course, I got to read Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, as well as some juvenilia, for the first time. I was able to re-read Austen’s other novels and write analyses of them. We watched film adaptations and compared them to the source material. I was even able to combine my love of the 19th century with my interest in fashion, as I was selected to present on Regency Era fashion.
The course really opened my eyes to how much a feminist Austen and her characters are/were, at least for the era from which they came. I hadn’t realized when I first read her writings, but she and her heroines had shaped me. They planted thoughts of independence in my mind, telling me I didn’t have to settle or give up. They taught me that my (lack of) wealth didn’t define me, that I could create my own happiness.
Jane Austen was one of the authors to really foster my love of literature. She made me want to read at a time when I was likely to become apathetic, and now I enjoy reading even the silliest of Austen-inspired works. Simply put, Jane Austen is one of my heroes, and I am forever thankful that she opted to write during an era where women were only encouraged to find a husband and take care of the house and children. She may have been published as the pen name “A Lady,” but she is so much more than that.
So today, we remember Jane Austen for the wonderful and inspiring writer and woman that she was.
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