Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most popular novel. It’s the one that gets assigned in high school, makes the top-novels-of-all-time lists, and was chosen as favorite by 53 percent of the Janeites responding to Jeanne Kiefer’s 2008 survey. And it’s not hard to see why: enchanting heroine, dashing hero, hilarious secondary characters, crackling dialogue. . .what’s not to like? Nothing, of course. And yet, choosing the relatively sunny, cheerful P&P as your favorite Austen novel seems a bit like choosing the sunny, cheerful Paul McCartney as your favorite Beatle. It’s a safe choice, a popular choice, a choice no one can argue with, but isn’t it a little – well, you know – predictable? Obvious? Boring, even?
Put intense, melancholy Persuasion at the top of your list, as 28 percent of the Janeites in Kiefer’s survey did, and you’re staking out different territory. Same thing if you join the 7 percent of the survey respondents who prefer precise, edgy Emma. These are the John Lennon choices, the choices that say you’re the kind of Janeite who opts for emotional depth and intellectual challenge over easy warmth. (In case you can’t tell, Persuasion is my favorite.) And what of the small but passionate Mansfield Park voting bloc – only 4 percent of Kiefer’s survey respondents? During my research for Among the Janeites, I ran across only a couple of people who claimed to love Mansfield Park best, and they were both academics, devotees of the complex and technically accomplished. Can you say George Harrison? Well, all you fans of Sense and Sensibility (5 percent in Kiefer’s survey) and Northanger Abbey (4 percent), I think you see where this is headed. Look, there’s no shame in preferring Ringo! He may be the perpetual also-ran, everybody’s second – OK, third – choice, but he was essential to the band! Without him, there’d be no Beatles! Anyway, I always did see Catherine Morland as a drummer.