I love Jane Austen.
You know this.
The thing is, I also love a lot of other books. Books of all genres! Books of all lengths! Books of all colors! Books for all!
We can’t all read Jane all the time—sometimes I think Mrs. Fitzpatrick tries, but eventually there are other things out there. And it’s summer, when we’re all supposed to pack up a few thick novels and cart them off to the beach or the mountains or the nearest fire escape with a glass of pink wine. And who am I to fail to support you all in the pursuit of excellent, Jane-esque summer reading? But must we stray from the path of Jane completely?
I say no.
Here, dear readers, are a few non-Austen books for an Austen frame of mind.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
I read Middlemarch way back in the Beloved Sisters’ early days of cooking and watching period pieces on Friday nights, back when Austenacious was just a twinkle in our collective eye, and let me tell you: George Eliot knows people. She knows the ways in which they’re funny, and the ways in which they’re devious, and the ways in which they’re well intentioned (or not), and the ways in which they handle life (or don’t), and I love her for it. And where is there a better heroine than Mary Garth (and a cuter ne’er-do-well than Fred Vincy)? Nowhere. That’s where.
One disclaimer: About two-fifths of the way through, you may find yourself persisting through a dry section regarding who will become the Middlemarch town doctor, and you will slog through because you are a conscientious reader and you think it is important to the plot. It isn’t. If you can do it without massive reader’s guilt, I hereby give you permission to skip to the next section and enjoy every other single word about these people. Be free! Read like the wind!
The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel
It isn’t funny, mostly—for that, you’d have to go to Kimmel’s childhood memoir, A Girl Named Zippy—but for a flawed and headstrong heroine and (eventual) true love between mismatched equals, this is a good place to go.
84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
Once upon a time, Miss Osborne and I went to London. I demanded that we find and pay our respects at 84 Charing Cross Road, where we found only a plaque and it became clear that Miss Osborne had no idea what we were doing or why she was being hurried around the city by a crazy person fixated on a single address not occupied by the Prime Minister. We came back to the States, I forced my copy into her hands, she read it and fell in love, and we all lived happily ever after, forcing many of our friends to read the greatest, funniest, saddest nonfiction epistolary book about books of all time. The End.
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
Cold Comfort Farm is not about the Regency period, but it IS the hilarious story of a plucky young lady and her country relatives, AND—bonus!—it’s a satire of a now-dead genre of Gothic literature about girls wandering the moors. (Fun fact: I just typed “Wandering the Moors,” but that is not the same at ALL.) There is nothing about this of which Jane would not have approved, except perhaps for the oversexed cousin named Seth (or Reuben, because there’s always an oversexed cousin named Seth or Reuben).
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
I never quite understand why Cassandra Mortmain and her sister Rose don’t really rate in the canon of coming-of-age heroines. They live in a CASTLE! And they’re poor, but trying not to be, and they have adventures and misadventures on the path to love and self-actualization, and isn’t that what coming of age is all about? Why the author of 101 Dalmatians wrote a combo young-adult novel/treatise on Modernism isn’t entirely clear, but it’s wonderful and worth a read.
What am I missing, readers? What’s Janelike but not exactly Jane?
It’s not all that often that I’m willing to gush in public about a book that I am also willing to admit I haven’t read.
But this isn’t really public, right? I mean, it’s only the internet.
The book is The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder (accompanying website here), and I love it already. I love it so much that I want everybody here to read it, and then come over for chatter and pie, because nothing complements nostalgic and loving book talk like pie.
This book makes me think of Miss Osborne and her quest to catch up on all of the literary heroines she missed as a girl—Laura Ingalls Wilder and others, surely with more to come—and what a joy it’s been to her and to those around her (note: mostly me), watching her.
It makes me think of my own history with all the classic “girl books” (not to corroborate the infuriating assumption that girls in books have cooties, and might diminish the character of our delicate boys, because come on)—I read most of them during that especially voracious ten-to-thirteen period, and while I’m still a committed bookworm, I think there’s something extra special about the reading we do at that age. Then, I read like I meant it—the characters in the classics became a part of me like no other reading I’ve done. Ironically, I came to Jane slightly later in life—well into my teenage years, and in such a way that I don’t even count her in the same category as my old summer-vacation standbys. But perhaps she’s the beginning of a new category? Perhaps she’s (approximately) where my childhood heroines end (so to speak) and my grown-up heroines begin—Elizabeth Bennet and Co. as ushers into the era of Helene Hanff (as writer and character; sneaky!), Haven Kimmel (same; also this one), Julia Child (ditto), Ruby Lennox, Flora Poste (who might actually be in the wrong category, though I met her as an adult), and so many others. Perhaps they’re the connection to my best inner reader, and I intend to love and venerate them as such, just as I do the Anne Shirleys and the Caddie Woodlawns of my life.
In any case, I’m thrilled about this book, this collection and celebration of so many of the bookish ladies I’ve held dear over the years, and about the friendly discussions it’s sure to bring about. Let the chatter begin. (Also: pie.)