Happy 245th birthday to my favourite author of all time, Jane Austen. Born in Steventon, Hampshire, on December 16th 1775, the seventh child (and second daughter) of George and Cassandra Austen, she went on to write six full novels, two incomplete novels, a short epistolary novel and several notebooks full of juvenilia, not to mention plenty of entertaining letters. In homage to her, today I’m sharing my ten favourite quotations and why I love them (and Austen!) so much.
1. The sense of longing after seven years apart
The letter Captain Wentworth sends to Anne Elliot to confess his love for her, after the seven years they spent apart, the whole time of which Anne has spent regretting not being strong enough to ignore her family’s prejudices against Captain Wentworth when they first fell in love, just feels like the crescendo of the whole novel. “You pierce my soul” just makes me buzz with happiness every time, as if whenever I watch or read the novel they might not quite make it back to each other. It may seem like a dramatic line, particularly compared to some of the other lighter declarations of love in Austen’s novel, but it perfectly encapsulates the sense of longing that permeates the whole novel.
2. The opening lines of Pride and Prejudice
It may seem a bit cliched for me to pick one of the most iconic opening lines in Western literature as one of my favourite Austen quotes, but this is why I love it: you think it is just introducing the main theme of the novel, that the five Bennet daughters need to marry well. But it isn’t just this. I love the opening paragraphs of the novel because they also introduce something really important I think a lot of people forget about Austen far too frequently: she was very funny and witty. You can hear a wry, amused voice explaining how the families in a neighbourhood immediately jump on the prospect of a rich, young bachelor, as well as in the exchange between the talkative Mrs Bennet and the long-suffering Mr Bennet. The comedy is there from the beginning, as is the promise of plenty of things about to happen.
3. The merits of education for girls
Though this line is said by one of the most odious characters in Austen, Mrs Norris, I love the idea that Austen is interjecting, in passing, an important sentiment about the lives of young women during the long eighteenth century. Having an education and understanding the possibilities of the world around her is crucial to the heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price: she becomes more worldly and bold throughout the course of the novel. It always makes me think of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and other contemporary pamphlets that express the importance of education for women, as it not only made her a better companion, but also more fulfilled, and ultimately able to contribute to society in a more meaningful way.
4. Recognising the importance of personal happiness
Just a beautiful line that pinpoints how different the values of different individuals are, and how we shouldn’t hold ourselves to the standards of others but focus on our own values. I think we’d all be a lot happier if we focussed on the people, things and ideas that are important to us, rather than feeling like we have to measure up to everybody else’s!
5. A playful, romantic exchange between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy
Okay, I love Mr Darcy’s first proposal – “I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you!” – but this is when Lizzy has truly realised she has fallen for him too, after a LOT of character development on both sides… overcoming the pride, and prejudice, of the title. I love that at the beginning of the novel, Lizzy’s nature is a complete contrast to the staid, disinterested personality of Fitzwilliam Darcy, here you can see how the best parts of their natures now complement each other. I also feel like it explains perfectly that moment when you have a sudden realisation about something that has probably been true for quite a long time, you just never really noticed.
6. Women often suffering in the history books
You’ll find this in a discussion about the inconstancy of a woman’s love, with this being the catalyst to Captain Wentworth realising that Anne Elliot could still love him. But I feel like it’s a very Austen, wry comment on how many history books were written by men, criticising women for all manner of reasons. Anne laments that women have all too often not had the opportunity to write their own story but were condemned to read the one written about them by men. Read more about this in my post on William Alexander’s 1796 book “The History of Women” here.
7. Expressing true love without words
This is another great crescendo of romance in an Austen novel: Mr Knightley tells Emma Woodhouse how he truly feels for her. Yet, he cannot quite put into words how he does feel about her. That phrase “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” is one of my favourites in all of Austen. It expresses that love, romance, friendship and feeling doesn’t need to be something of huge gestures and lengthy speeches, but something that is quiet, tender and felt on an everyday level.
8. Flying the flag for fiction
I love this line so much. And I don’t think it’s Austen criticising people who don’t enjoy reading, rather her criticising people who disregard the reading of fiction as opposed to more high-brow non-fiction books. As somebody who voraciously reads fiction book after fiction book, with the odd non-fiction thrown in along the way, I very much appreciate her extoling the virtues of novels. (Obviously she herself was a novel writer, so had much of a vested interest in this!)
9. The devotion to a beloved sister
Dedicated by permission to Miss Austen.
You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, & your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, & your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational & your appearance singular. If, therefore, the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of
Your most obedient
THE AUTHORThe Beautifull Cassandra, Dedication
I love this simply because it shows the devotion between the two Austen sisters, Jane and Cassandra. Cassandra was Jane’s best friend and confidante, and the only person to produce a portrait of Jane from life. In many of Austen’s novels you can see the importance of sisterhood and female friendship, which I really think comes from her love for her own sister. I got to talk about the relationship between Cassandra and Jane on the Sistory Untold Podcast, which you can find here.
10. Jane Austen liked to party hard too!
“I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today; you will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing by attributing it to this venial error”Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, Steventon, November 20th 1800
This is one of my FAVOURITE things from the letters Jane sent to Cassandra mainly because lots of people view Austen as a very prim and proper unmarried woman who spent all her time writing novels. Here we have an insight into Austen, twenty-four years old, dancing and drinking the night away at a local ball and having the time of her life. Her letters also reveal her enjoyment in flirtation, in conversation, in socialising and visiting friends. You only have to look at her novels to see plenty of this happens in the various plots!
All editions of the books I’ve used here are the Penguin English Library copies.