Jane Austen mania has reached a fever pitch. Recently we’ve seen a television adaptation of her unfinished Sanditon and another film version of Emma. Writers both renowned and aspiring seem to write sequels or interpretations of Pride and Prejudice faster than fans can read them. It sometimes feels as if Austen, one of the greatest writers in the English canon, is valued more as source material for Regency romances than for her singular genius. Thankfully, this reductive tendency is nowhere in evidence in Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels, by literary critic Rachel Cohen, whose first book, A Chance Meeting, was a delightful study of the intertwined lives of writers and artists. Cohen’s incisive new book explores her immersion into Austen’s work during a fraught period in her personal life. Ultimately a narrative about grief, loss and resurfacing, it also provides a deep dive into some of Austen’s most penetrating writing.
This candid memoir from an accomplished literary critic seeks answers to life’s greatest challenges through the novels of Jane Austen.
“Criticism and memoir have always been near neighbors,” Cohen observes. “The gift of a pronounced personal point of view leads to deeper readings, and to new ones.” Interestingly, Cohen was not always a rabid Austen aficionado. She read Austen in high school, then moved on. Later discovering that many writers she admired had written about Austen (most notably Virginia Woolf), Cohen returned to the English author’s work. But the intersection of two major events in Cohen’s life—the death of her beloved father and the birth of her first child—prompted a period when she began to read Austen exclusively. In the pages of five of Austen’s six novels (all but Northanger Abbey, generally regarded as inferior), Cohen found entry into the uncertainties of her life as she, in her own words, “[unfolded] Jane Austen’s novels like a map.”
Cohen learned much from Austen, as will the reader of this candid memoir. Close reading and rereading grant this seasoned critic new insights into her own life, drawn from the awakenings of Austen’s resilient heroines—Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor, Marianne, Fanny, Anne—as well as peripheral characters, both female and male. From the known facts of Austen’s life story, Cohen draws conclusions about the writer’s intentions, challenges and determination, gleaning lessons for her own very different experiences two centuries later.
As a memoir, Austen Years is uncompromising and engaging, and as literary criticism, it is assured and perceptive. If these two aspects never fully coalesce, for arguably Cohen has set herself an impossible task, the book is nonetheless an absorbing pleasure that will stimulate and augment the reading of Austen for fans old and new.