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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The fifth-grade Jane Austen

Is Jane Austen hard to read?

“Absolutely not!” I hear you Janeites saying. “She’s a master of precise and lucid prose! Her dialogue sparkles! Her novels are models of economical storytelling!”

Okay, okay! You know I agree with you! But I still shook my head when I was reminded recently, via this blog by writer Nick Douglas, of a three-year-old post about the supposed “reading levels” of famous books.

Journalist Shane Snow evaluated a number of works using the Flesch-Kincaid reading tests, which purport to determine how easy it is to read a given book and how much formal education is required to understand it. Jane Austen came in at about a fifth-grade reading level, and so easy to understand that a twelve-year-old could do it.

On the one hand, who could disagree? Many Janeites got started on Austen’s novels at just about that age.

On the other hand, the internet is filled with people complaining about how hard Austen is. “Impenetrable prose that makes my head throb with pain when I try to read it,” complains one commenter on a (pro-Austen) post titled “Why the F*ck Do People Love Jane Austen So Much? A Primer.” “I cannot truly imagine anybody having a genuinely pleasant or easy time reading such ugly, technically-demanding sentences,” adds our anti-Janeite. “It’s like reading a computer-program printout.”

In the Yahoo! Answers column, replies to the question “Are books by Jane Austen difficult to read?” range from “Not at all” to “Jane Austen was a brilliant writer but she used a slightly pedantic language and turn of phrase which is not always readily understandable now.”

Another reply warns, “The dialogue and descriptions can be very drawn out. . . .There are probably pages of her works you could skip over because the details really don't matter that much.” (Where are those long descriptive passages this reader objects to? They must have been accidentally left out of my editions.)

Although I disagree with these responses, I don’t find them completely mystifying. Austen’s nineteenth-century vocabulary differs from our own; her balanced, Johnsonian sentences don’t fit today’s preference for the brief and telegraphic; her plots turn on tiny incidents and subtle emotions, not huge melodramatic events; and the social context in which her characters move is largely alien to us. That’s a combination that can leave inexperienced or unmotivated readers in the dust.

So how, then, can Austen’s works be simultaneously fifth-grade level and impenetrably pedantic? The problem surely lies in trying to determine reading level via a quantitative formula that takes account only of the lengths of words and sentences. Much of what makes Austen’s works more difficult than those of, say, J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book comes in at a similar reading level, is unquantifiable; it has to do with the relative unfamiliarity of the syntax and the profusion of meanings packed into even the simplest words.

Take one of my favorite Austen sentences: “The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.” (Ch. 22 of Pride and Prejudice)

Most of the words are short – indeed, only five consist of more than two syllables – and in common usage; while the sentence is long, it is conveniently divided in two by a semi-colon. Still, it’s not hard to imagine an incautious reader puzzling over what “establishment” refers to in this context, or tripping over “disinterested,” whose true meaning – not a synonym for “uninterested”! – is often missed.

And it takes a modicum of attention to pick up the humor in the first half of the sentence (“favored by nature” – priceless!) and the ironic sting when the high-flown idealism of “pure and disinterested desire of. . .” is brought thumpingly back to earth by the materialistic pragmatism of “an establishment.”

To be fair, according to Microsoft Word, this sentence taken by itself comes in at an eleventh-grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid index. (Did you know that Word has a reading-level function? Thanks to Nick Douglas, I do now!) Meanwhile, the blog post you’ve just been reading scores at nearly a tenth-grade level – considerably harder than Pride and Prejudice as a whole. Go figure.

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