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6 best Jane Austen books: From ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to ‘Emma’

Whether you’re just starting out with the classic British author or are a long-term indulger, here are some of her most readable 

Kat Brown
Thursday 28 January 2021 09:11 GMT
Choose from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, 'Northanger Abbey’ and more
Choose from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, 'Northanger Abbey’ and more (The Independent)

Ranking Jane Austen’s six witty, wise, and utterly moreish novels changes over the years. You might have found Northanger Abbey absolutely unreadable when at school, but were rendered helpless with laughter when you picked it up again years later.

Pride and Prejudice's first line reads as clearly in French as it does in English. Sympathies for Persuasion's Anne Elliot grow along with life experience.

The acidic humour and social observation in Austen’s work is often glossed over in favour of the romance, but the two are absolutely key to her books’ ongoing popularity. Her heroines are not meek and mild (viz Daphne “milksop” Bridgerton) but flawed and fired up by their knowledge that as women, they need to marry well to secure a future for themselves and, in some cases, their wider family.

Read more: Best historical fiction books to read if you loved ‘Bridgerton’

Lizzie Bennett might be a fan favourite for her wit and “fine eyes”, but her pride also contributes to her sister’s near-downfall. Catherine Morland’s cheerful character is nearly sabotaged by her lack of life experience, and naïve belief that life must be like the gothic novels she so adores.

If you’ve never read one of Jane Austen’s novels, you may as well throw a dart and pick one at random. They are all superb in their own ways. Now that they have been continuously in print for more than 200 years, it’s easy to forget that Austen was never credited for them during her lifetime, nor made enough money (thanks often to double standards in publishing) to feel truly independent.

While judging what makes a “best” book, however, we went for her six principal novels (if you are suitably keen, you can investigate Lady Susan and other Austen ephemera afterwards). 

Read more: Holocaust Memorial Day: The books to read, from ‘The Volunteer’ to ‘Night’

We chose based on which book most easily stands alone, beloved adaptations aside, and makes a truly enjoyable read where you can create the characters in your head, a joyful participant in Austen’s expertly-drawn world.

But, realistically, this ranking could change depending on the year – what matters is that you have six glorious books ahead of you, to read and re-read with relish.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. 

‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen, published by Penguin Classics

Persuasion.jpg

Published six months after Austen’s death in 1817, Persuasion was named by her brother Henry. Anne Elliot is an unlikely heroine by the standards of the romantic novels of the time, being 27 and thus – gasp – practically dead by the standards of the Georgian marriage market. At 19, she was persuaded by relatives to end an engagement to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, by dint of the fact he had no prospects. In the present day, her spendthrift family have been persuaded (this time by sensible Anne) to rent out their home and take temporary lodgings in Bath, where Anne encounters Wentworth, now a rich and successful Captain.

She still loves him, but can he forgive her for being persuaded to end their engagement? Several extremely neat plot twists from Austen force them further apart before becoming reunited and the yearning of both characters – older, wiser, and regretful – is utterly compelling. Austen, who experienced her own regretful near-misses in love, brings about a masterful conclusion that wasn’t to be hers. One hopes that she would instead be quietly satisfied at being one of the world’s best-known and best-loved authors two centuries after her death.

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‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, published by Wordsworth Classics

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So embedded has the drama between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy become in all levels of pop culture that you could feel as though you had read it countless times when you’ve only seen parodies. But even if you have seen the exquisite Andrew Davies BBC adaptation (now wedded to Netflix) a million times, there’s plenty that’s new to lap up by going back to the book.

Not only that peerless first line – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – but the extra joy from being in Austen’s capable hands, and words, for the duration of the story. As beautiful as the TV version, it was nothing compared to being carried along with Austen’s observations. That is an experience as delightful as being in the company of your cleverest, kindest, and most devastatingly shrewd friend.

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‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen, published by Vintage Classics

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This was the first novel that Austen finished writing but due to being caught up by the world’s slowest publisher, was only published after Austen had bought the copyright back – and then died. It is an absolute riot: a dry pastiche of gothic and romance novels that both celebrates, and rolls its eyes at, youthful credulity. It is less immediately accessible, simply because it really benefits from having read books featuring dewy-eyed and slightly dim heroines.

At 17, Catherine Morland is one of 10 children born to a clergyman, and fancies herself “in training for a heroine,” having spent her teens inhaling popular Gothic novels of the time. Austen neatly subverts Catherine’s expectations while ticking off all the plot points of a Gothic romance: from the titular Abbey (annoyingly un-terrifying) to a ghoulish nemesis, a broken engagement, and betrayed confidences. Yet Austen, as ever, keeps the main problems out of fantasy and closer to home. Money is the root of all problems, but fortunately for Catherine, the heroine wins out in the end.

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‘Emma by Jane Austen, published by Penguin

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Austen flips her tried and trusted financially-troubled heroine narrative with Emma Woodhouse, a filthy rich only child who is the very incarnation of Cher saying, “But mother, I AM a rich man?” Blessed with good looks, charm, and no need to marry, Emma enjoys a life being adored by the minions in her neighbourhood, teasing her childhood friend Knightley, and making matches between any suitable young people who cross her path. 

Her enjoyable life playing dolls with people’s lives and fortunes comes to a juddering halt when she makes some unforgivable errors with a beloved local spinster, and a new young visitor, and comes to realise that through these she runs the risk of losing her own true happiness. Austen is in especially waspish form, directed mostly through Emma’s speech. The own goals, when they come to Emma, are humbling but all pursuant to a very satisfying ending. A hugely enjoyable read about the perils of being too clever by half.

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‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen, published by Folio Society

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Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have cracking names but nothing in the way of a dowry to attract a husband now that the family’s wealth has fallen to their brother and his hideous wife. While sensible Elinor pines after her lost love, Edward Ferrers, dreamy Marianne falls in love with the sexy, flighty Willoughby, whose dramatic tendencies Austen shades wonderfully: “He then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of a heavy rain.” While none of Austen’s novels are frothy – it’s a serious misnomer that anything with a bonnet must therefore be stupid – Sense and Sensibility ’s darker moments weigh especially heavy because they are so tiring and so familiar to many readers.

The weight of family duty on a woman’s shoulders, when others have no idea of its heft, at a time when a woman must rely on the kindness of others if the burden is ever to be eased. And if Marianne’s marriage to the much-older Colonel Brandon feels a bit of a climbdown after her passionate love of Willoughby, well – at least he’s a decent sort with plenty going on under the surface. And yes, that is a bit of a “meh” and a shrug, but not everything in life can be Alan Rickman.  

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‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen, published by Chiltern Classic

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Last place is so unfair, so consider this instead “First place, and then the rest of them”. Austen upended more of her familiar heroine traits for M ansfield Park in Fanny Price, who at first glance is the strange, silent mouse to her glamorous adoptive family’s charming parade. Used to a bright, witty and desirable heroine, the reader can feel uneasy at the young girl who, at 10, is given to a rich uncle’s family to be raised and spends the years until she comes of age being mercilessly teased and insulted by various relations and glamorous friends who cannot understand her.

Not pert or bright, or quick with a word or a joke, Fanny Price stays in the shadows, observing until she is able to live. She is treated as nothing, but through the course of the book shows that the moral core that runs through her makes her anything but. Much has been written about Fanny Price, but the best thing to do is to read her.

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The verdict: Jane Austen books

Everyone has their own measure of what makes their best Jane Austen book, and Persuasion is ours. We call it her best novel, and our best buy. 

Once you’ve raced through Austen’s back catalogue, you can try Anthony Trollope for more shrewd tales of village life and expertly caricatures. For pure comfort from a later period, but similarly sharp and engaging writing of women fallen on hard times, try Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery. Both as enchanting as any of Jane Austen’s heroines.

And if you want the author whom Harper's Bazaar hailed as “the Jane Austen of our time” then head immediately for Jilly Cooper, and her series of romances named after heroines. Imogen and Harriet are especially heavenly.

Find your next favourite read among our round-up of the best historical novels

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