Joseph Highmore, Pamela Fainting, 1743, oil on canvas.
The success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the latest sign of a fascination for all things Austen. Today’s Janeites devour everything from novels to blogs to cultural histories based on her work. But what did Austen herself read? Below are some of the best sellers that had the greatest influence on Austen’s early novels.
Hailed as the father of the English novel, Richardson was Austen’s favorite author. Although she preferred the melodrama of his Sir Charles Grandison, it was the intimate epistolary style of Pamela that spawned a sensation and influenced Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Today’s readers might not finish all six hundred pages of Richardson’s tale, which consist of little more than the eponymous sixteen-year-old servant girl parrying the advances of a lecherous master, but eighteenth-century readers relished every word, creating the first best seller in English literary history.
Austen began her career writing parodies of popular genres, and the gothic novel was a chief target. In Northanger Abbey, she gently mocked Radcliffe’s blockbuster by showing how tales of murder and seduction in monasteries and abbeys warp the imagination of an impressionable English girl.
Mackenzie’s short novel remains the best introduction to the cult of sensibility that Austen chided in Sense and Sensibility. Readers still like to tally how many times the hero, Harley, weeps during his encounters with beggars and picturesque landscapes. Mackenzie’s idea was to test the depths of human emotion, and Harley, who almost dies of a broken heart by the end, instead expires in a spasm of joy when the love of his life admits her feelings.
Prejudice and reason are two words that echo throughout the opening pages of Wollstonecraft’s 1792 feminist classic, joining an ongoing debate about “discrimination” in morals and intellect that would ultimately inspire Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813. Wollstonecraft helped spark the feminist movement in England, and while Austen did not share her liberal bent, she used Pride and Prejudice to dramatize many of Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women’s education. In her novel, Austen promotes the development of women’s minds (through reading) and bodies (through walking), a strong counterargument to the prevailing norm of teaching women to acquire light “accomplishments,” like painting teacups.
As a companion to the volumes above, Shields’s brief biography makes Austen’s life accessible to readers who don’t want to tackle the larger academic biographies, such as those by Park Honan and John Halperin, or to sift through the daily minutiae of Austen’s letters. Shields employs her own beautiful prose to address the status of fiction in Austen’s day, recognizing more authors that Austen loved, including Maria Edgeworth and Charlotte Smith.
Laura Brodie is the author of the novel The Widow’s Season (Berkley Books, 2009) and the nonfiction book Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women (Pantheon, 2000). Her memoir, Love in a Time of Homeschooling, is forthcoming next year from HarperCollins. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.