Katherine Reay

Behind the Book by

Author Katherine Reay really loves Jane Austen and her contemporaries. She has written multiple novels that draw from Austen’s novels and Recency classics, and her latest is a fun tale of friendship and falling head-first into history.

In The Austen Escape, Mary Davies is an engineer in need of a holiday, and she receives the perfect offer from her childhood friend Isabel Dwyer: a two-week stay in an English manor house. But then Isabel loses her memory and becomes convinced she lives in Austen-era Bath. Reay’s latest is a charming romp full of dancing, misunderstandings and romance.

Reay can’t get enough of Jane Austen—and neither can we. Here’s five reasons why.


Why we (still) love Jane Austen
By Katherine Reay

1. Austen introduces us to ourselves—and we are well dressed.

Austen shows that human nature is static—all while moving through life in silk dresses, cravats and shoe-roses got by proxy. From Pride and Prejudice alone, Austen shows we will always get things wrong, carry prejudice, look out for our own interests, demonstrate beautiful loyalty, stand firm when pressed and often rise above it all with the truest sacrificial instincts. In her fiction and in our lives, we see that sibling love is powerful and a gift, sibling rivalry undeniable, and families, good or bad, are for life. We interact with Wickhams, Caroline Bingleys, Lydias and Marys, and if we’re blessed, we count a few Lizzys, Janes, Georgianas and Charlottes among our friends. We not only meet these people daily—we are these people.

2. Austen wrote unlike anybody else—and exactly how we think.

We are taught to use active verbs when writing. Run! Slay! Dart! Use “ponder” rather than “think long and hard.” And never load up the adverbs—that’s clearly and noticeably weak. Yet, we think that way. We think in gradations of an unspoken, often even subconscious, standard. Comparisons are in our nature—likes, winks. Austen writes just this way. She describes Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility as “still handsomer . . . so lovely . . . though not so correct” as her elder sister, Elinor. She employs a prodigious number of very-s, most-s and much-es throughout all her novels. She continually compares because we understand it. We instinctively understand her.

3. Austen reminds us everyone is flawed—even our beloved heroines—but they, and we, can change.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen introduces an unlikely heroine:

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”

It’s a delightful way to begin a story, and reveal a truth. We can change, learn, think and grow. We can become the heroes and heroines of our own stories. Human nature writ large may be static, but we as individuals are not. Her most beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, backs this up:

“But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

Now, Catherine and Lizzy don’t overturn their presuppositions and refine their thinking all at once. Austen’s books are carefully drawn journeys of self-discovery. Her young heroines learn who they are, where they stand and who they want to be over time—and if that comes with love, all the better. Catherine constantly sparred with the quixotic Henry—her education was challenging and slow going. She had to break old patterns and expectations—her thirst for good gothic drama, for one. Lizzy needed to recognize she was fallible. Her education was almost the opposite of Catherine’s. One came at the world with wide-eyed naiveté, and the other with a cynical belief in her own complete understanding. Like Catherine, we too can see mystery, pain, subterfuge and drama where only a laundry list exists. And like Lizzy, we often don’t pay attention to what’s around us and make discerning judgments. We judge on what we think we know.

Emma is also a delightful example of this. Austen, in an ironic play, exposes Emma’s self-absorption and arrogance by naming the novel after her—solely Emma. Yet Austen also gives Emma a remarkable capacity for understanding, empathy, sacrifice and selfless love. This novel is a beautiful story of transformation, and as often is true in own lives, it takes a little outside correction to get Emma there. No one will ever forget Mr. Knightley’s “It was badly done, indeed!” He could say the same to us, many times over.

4. Austen calls out what we know to be true: It is vital to pay attention to life right around you.

As I alluded to above, we often go with what we know, rather than paying attention to the truth around us. Austen opens her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, with that immortal line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged. . . .” But she cautions readers to not be fooled. She is not going to dazzle the reader with a “universal” story, a sweeping saga with adventures across continents, great mysteries or international intrigue. Instead, Austen expresses the very small truth: A woman with five daughters believes that every young man must be in want of a wife, because all the Mrs. Bennets of the world have daughters who need to marry them. Austen’s characters stayed in their villages—or complained about a 50-mile carriage ride outside them. In those close quarters, her men and women moved through kitchens, ballrooms and life. She didn’t need more canvas. Nor do we. Although the concerns of the world do and should draw us to the larger stage, our actions close to home are paramount. How we love those nearest us will determine how we help and love those far away.

On that note, in Mansfield Park, Austen created Fanny Price—an often overlooked heroine, but one who confirms this point. Fanny is not a character many readers love. She is not a heroine who says much or even seems to feel much. But Fanny does much. She takes care of her indolent Aunt Bertram, continually assists her cousins, even taking part in a play she dislikes because it is their wish to continue it, and works time and again towards their welfare rather than her own. Fanny serves her family. She shows love through doing—on a very small stage—and she changes lives.

5. Ahead of her time, Austen recognized the multifaceted benefits of exercise.

I loved playing with this in my new book, The Austen Escape. One character pulls another up from a park bench with the truth, “When there are serious matters to discuss, Austen women walk. And it has the side benefit of keeping our figures so light and pleasing.” (Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for that visual.) Time and time again, Austen reinforced what we know to be true—a good long walk is always a good idea. Need to clear your head? Take a walk outside. Need to gain some perspective or relax? Again, go for a walk. Need exercise to get your heart rate up, purge some anger or avoid an unwanted guest—go walking. Exercise clears the mind, helps sleep, improves your mood, strengthens your bones and muscles and helps prevent disease. What more could we want? Lizzy was Austen’s most famous walker, but Catherine, Emma, Marianne, Fanny and Anne all walked as well. And another benefit? Good things happened on walks. Don’t forget it was during a walk Mr. Knightley proposed to Emma; Darcy to Elizabeth; and after one that Captain Wentworth handed Anne into a carriage and, I say, fell in love with her all over again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little traipse into Austen with me. Bottom line: I contend we still love Austen because Austen is still relevant.

Author Katherine Reay can’t get enough of Jane Austen—and neither can we. Here’s five reasons why.

Feature by

Make this your New Year’s resolution: Author Katherine Reay calls for more reading of fairy tales in 2019.


A recent article in Quartzy noted how little Bill Gates reads fiction, and the writer made a solid case for the scientific benefits of reading literature. I’d like to up the ante and suggest that among all genres, fairy tales may be more important to us now than ever before.

I confess I’ve always adored fairy tales. I read them as a child, read them to my own kids, and even invented a few along the way. My son still talks of Filbert, the good-hearted dragon I sent into battle each bedtime against his nemesis, Peroxio.

What is it about this fictional world, where good always triumphs over evil, which keeps us reading or watching night after night? After all, the tenets of the Marvel world remind us of the schema and structure, and the pitfalls and triumphs, found within traditional fairy tales.

The swoonworthy, sensitive men of action certainly have something to do with it. And imagining ourselves in the roles of these beautiful women of action—not the passive damsels in distress of the past—entices us as well. Who wouldn’t want to save the universe as I suspect Captain Marvel just might? I wouldn’t mind Black Widow’s roundhouse kicks either. But high stakes drama and outstanding computer graphics don’t tell the whole story.

I believe the answer in our loyalty to traditional and to new fairy tales lies in the story behind the story. In our fast and shifting world, we instinctively search for stable ground, and throughout the ages, fairy tales have provided just that: something pure and moral and comforting to cling to. These stories give us glimpses of truth in a society that often distorts right and wrong. We may adapt the plots, the characters and the fantastical settings, but the core remains the same. There is good and evil in the universe, hard choices need to be made, daily living requires courage, and there will always be consequences for the wrong actions.

The Brothers Grimm instinctively understood this and first published Nursery and Household Tales in 1812, codifying and uniting German culture and oral tradition. And this desire for stability, community and common ground is no less needed today than during Napoleon’s sieges. Our lives suggest this, and we ask ourselves, Will right prevail? Can dreams come true? Does true love exist, and can it withstand anything we throw at it? These are large and looming questions, and simply because we don’t chat about them over coffee doesn’t mean they don’t dwell in our heads and in our hearts. We yearn for the faith that good will triumph and the conviction that true love lasts.

The clarity that fairy tales provide instinctively feels right to us, but such truths are rarely witnessed on a daily basis. C.S. Lewis describes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” that the rich, imaginative atmosphere provided by fairy tales and myths is a perfect conduit through which truths flow and are found. They provide a context for the unknown and, to our linear and limited minds, the unbelievable. There is an experiential quality to myths that marry thought to experience.

So perhaps I can use this line of thinking to justify my love for myths, fairy tales and everything Marvel creates—after all, I am intimately involved in one, and should bring to that one all my wonder, gratitude, imagination and awe. And there’s a little left over for the other for the other fairy tales, too—as, and I stand with Lewis and his assertion: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly.” (From “On Three Ways for Writing for Children.”)

With every story read or movie watched, I’m reassured by glimpses of truth and clarity, standing apart in the daily wave of propaganda directed at us. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way, for clearly my sole adoration cannot have made them so popular and numerous. We trust good will prevail, love will last eternally, and some things in life are worth fighting, even dying, for. We trust, stepping into the imaginative experience, that we, too, can defeat the villain.

Make sure you add some fairy tales and retellings to your 2019 TBR list. Check out these wonderful adaptations, and don’t forget to revisit the beloved original stories:

Scarlet

Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet
(Little Red Riding Hood)

 Princess of the Midnight Ball

Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball
(The Twelve Dancing Princesses)

The Goose Girl

Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl
(The Goose Girl)

A Princess in Theory

Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory
(Cinderella)

The Silent Songbird

Melanie Dickerson’s The Silent Songbird
(The Little Mermaid)


Katherine Reay is the national bestselling and award-winning author of Dear Mr. Knightley, Lizzy and Jane, The Brontë Plot, A Portrait of Emily Price, The Austen Escape and The Printed Letter Bookshop (May 2019). All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Katherine holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and is a wife, mother, former marketer and avid chocolate consumer. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine now happily resides outside Chicago, Illinois. You can meet her at www.katherinereay.com; Facebook: KatherineReayBooks; Twitter: @katherine_reay; or Instagram: @katherinereay.

Make this your New Year’s resolution: Author Katherine Reay calls for more reading of fairy tales in 2019.

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