I've never actually read any Jane Austen, and lately I've been thinking that I want to. But I've seen so many movie adaptations and pop culture versions of P&P that I don't want to start with it - I'd rather get a sense of her writing through something I can experience on its own merits without comparing it to a bunch of other things. Which non-P&P Austen book would you recommend as a first Austen exposure?
Hmm, I would go with either Northanger Abbey or Persuasion.
Neither are her most polished work, IMO, but they are sort of concentrated Austen, depending on which side you prefer.
Northanger Abbey is a revised version of a story she wrote as a very young woman (published posthumously because she was never able to revise it to her satisfaction, and she worried that most of the references were too outdated by the 1810s, lol). It’s the most light-hearted, with a charming, witty young hero and very earnest, imaginative teenage heroine, with a lot of parodying of Gothic romance.
Persuasion was actually published with NA, but written much later. She’d finished it before she died and started work on a new book, but didn’t live long enough for publication (she didn’t name either of them).
It’s pretty much the total opposite from NA, with a heroine in her late twenties who is the gentle, sensible daughter of a baronet, and used and stomped over by everyone. She broke off an engagement with a bold and charismatic (but rash) sailor when she was nineteen, and now her family is drowning in debt and he’s a Navy captain who made a fortune in the war. It’s probably the most overtly romantic and intense of any Austen novel—lots of pining and melancholy.
Austen runs a pretty wide gamut from the frothy to the angsty, so it’s hard for a single book to give an idea of the whole. But those two are the most quintessentially Austen, I think, from opposite ends.