[In which Audrey takes a look at "old school" reading groups & the art of reading aloud. Enjoy!]
When Jane Austen described her family as “great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so,” she was referring, in part, to their habit of reading books aloud as a group. Long before radio or TV became the focus of domestic entertainment, families would assemble to share an agreed-upon title.
These were lively gatherings. After supper or on a rainy afternoon, the stories unfolded, one sentence at a time. The best readers knew how to slow down here, pause there, add an expressive inflection, and give characters their proper voices. Books succeeded or failed on the spot. Every word counts when you’re reading out loud.
Fans of book clubs know how much fun it is to talk about literature with other people. Reading an entire work out loud with a friend or in a small group is more time-consuming but infinitely more pleasurable than reading in isolation. Everyone is on the same page. Comments and insights arise in real time.
Henry Austen praised his sister’s reading talents. “She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse.” Imagine sitting in on a reading session with the Austen family. Jane opens the book and sizes up her audience. “It is a truth,” she begins, perhaps pausing there, so familiar are her listeners with what comes next. We lean forward in our chairs to catch the arched brow, noticing, as Jane wishes us to, how that word truth can be called into question. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet make their entrance, bickering over their daughters’ futures. They’re right here with us. We can’t wait to hear more.
If Jane were the host of your reading group, she might indulge you in a scene or two from one of her novels. She would probably enjoy being treated like a star since she wasn’t accorded that status in her lifetime; however, she would also introduce you to her sister authors toward whom she felt an enormous allegiance and debt.
She would want you to read Frances Burney and would start you off with Evelina (1778), the book that launched Burney’s career as the most famous novelist at the end of the 18th century. Jane could deliver comic renditions of dialogue from Evelina that sent her listeners into fits of laughter. Evelina, the ingénue protagonist who doesn’t know the rules of London society, taught Jane a thing or two about putting women at the center of a story, and she would want you to get to know how Burney’s fiction mentored her.
In Jane’s reading group, you would meet Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote (1752), the inspiration for Northanger Abbey and Emma. The heroine of this novel, Arabella, is raised in seclusion, and, like the original Quixote, she reads tales of chivalry and confuses them with reality. Arabella thinks that a true hero ought to serve his lady faithfully and perform acts of derring-do in her name for decades before she should even consider giving him her hand. Her fantasies collide comically with the facts of daily life as she struggles to hold her own against the pressures of reality. This book struck such a chord for Austen and her family that they read it no fewer than three times aloud.
Jane would want you to read Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), a work that makes clear how hard it is for a young woman to navigate the marriage market without proper guidance and advice. She would recommend Sarah Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, and Elizabeth Inchbald, among others, and perhaps, if she got to know you well enough, she might even suggest that you dip into Mary Wollstonecraft. She could recommend a male writer or two, but she would urge you to pay particular attention to her literary foremothers and sisters, noting that history has not been kind to them, and that they (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room of One’s Own) made it possible for her to write.
Shared reading was an important part of the lives of past writers. We know that Jane read sections of her work in progress to family and friends and that she took note of their responses, with the idea that the novels would be read aloud once published. A niece writes of how Aunt Jane would visit, bringing along her latest manuscript. “She would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door…” Clearly, Jane liked to make people laugh, and she continues to do so almost two hundred years after her death.
Should you choose to imitate the old-fashioned reading group and gather friends to read aloud, figure that a book the size of Pride and Prejudice will take up six or seven sessions, depending on interruptions, applause, discussion, and digression. Take your time with it, and encourage readers to bring their sections to life and to show off their dramatic skills. One thing that happens when you read out loud is that you end up taking things personally and bringing in your own perspective. “That happened to me,” or “I know someone just like that.” Before you know it, other stories find their way into the room, deepening and enriching relationships, and bringing the book into conversation with the lives of those in the room.
A book is never just a book when you read it out loud. There’s a sense of group ownership and collective experience. One of Jane’s heroines comments, “My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” If that’s a view you share, then give the Jane Austen reading group a try. You may never go back to reading alone!
Audrey Bilger © 2007-2009
Pix from Top:
The Travelling Companions: Augustus Leopold Egg
Illustration from the 1833 Bentley edition of Pride & Prejudice
Three-volume early edition of Evelina
Maria Edgeworth: Mackenzie, after William Marshall Craig
A Reading: Thomas Dewing