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Everything You Need To Know About Jane Austen

Few historical literary figures have held our attention like Jane Austen. We talk and think a lot about her life, almost more than we do the books she wrote. Where there are gaps in our knowledge (and there are many, for her sister destroyed most of her letters after her death), we’re tempted to borrow facts from her fiction, but it would seem that very little in Austen’s work was autobiographical. Still, understanding Jane Austen definitely allows us a better and fuller understanding of her writing. If you can’t be bothered reading the hundreds (thousands) of books and articles about her, this should do: here’s everything you need to know about Jane Austen.

Everything You Need To Know About Jane Austen - Interesting Jane Austen Facts - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Austen’s Birth, Death, and Family

Baby Jane was born in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father was a clergyman, with a few side-hustles to keep the family afloat (they were respectable enough, but not well-off financially). Her mother was of the aristocracy, she “married down”, but didn’t seem to regret it in the slightest.

Jane was – get this – the second-youngest of eight(!) children, and one of only two(!) girls. She and her sister, Cassandra, were sent to live with their Aunt Ann Cooper Cawley for a time as children before being sent to boarding school. Jane and Cassandra remained incredibly close throughout their lives. They lived together for most of their lives (at times even sharing a bedroom) and they were each other’s closest confidantes.

As a grown-up, Austen never married, but her love life has been the site of much speculation and curiosity. I’m not overly eager to join the leagues of Janeites desperate to pair her off – I think there are so many more interesting things about her than her relationships with men – so suffice to say she probably had a couple of hot flings, but nothing stuck. That could’ve been the reason that she and Cassandra remained so close; her sister’s fiance and one-true-love died of yellow fever, and she never married either.

Sadly, Jane Austen died in 1817 at just 41 years old, after a months-long illness (now suspected to have been Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma).


Jane Austen’s Books and Published Works

Austen began writing parodies and satires at just 12 years of age. Despite showing early talent and eagerness, her writing career didn’t kick off in earnest until the old-timey equivalent of “late in life”. She had no independent source of income until she was 36, and relied on pocket money from her parents and hospitality from her family and friends to get by. Her brother had to cover the costs of the initial print run of her first novel (Sense And Sensibility), because she couldn’t find a publisher willing to take the risk.

Throughout her career, all of her work was published anonymously. Sense And Sensibility was published as “by A Lady” and later novels were published as “by the Author of Sense and Sensibility”.

Only four of her books were published during her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma). After her death, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published with a Biographical Note from her brother, identifying Austen as the author. Then, her work fell out of circulation altogether, with no new prints published until a decade later when her popularity resurged. Sanditon – her final, incomplete manuscript – wasn’t published until a century later.

The last thing Jane Austen ever wrote – as far as we know – was a poem for her sister, a silly joke about the rotten weather. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, I suspect it was destroyed in the Great Cassandra Austen Purge, but if you know that it exists and where, please let me know in the comments!


Interesting Facts about Jane Austen (Probably)

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s leave behind the bare-bones biography and get to the good stuff! Here are some of the best Fun Facts(TM) I’ve unearthed about Jane Austen’s life and career. Some of them are fairly well-established and I was able to corroborate them with multiple sources. Others… well, it’d be fun to assume they’re true, if nothing else. Here are some interesting facts about Jane Austen (probably), in no particular order.

She had a knack for brewing her own beer. She used molasses to give her brews (called “spruce beer”) a sweeter taste. She also lamented, in one letter, that her household was running out of mead (apparently fourteen gallons wasn’t enough to last the season) and she had no honey to make more. She must’ve had a bit of a sweet tooth, because she also wrote of her appreciation for sponge cake and Bath bunns (basically a rich brioche bread).

She dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent of the. day. He was a big fan of her work (having heard through the grapevine that she was the anonymous author of Pride And Prejudice), but she… well, she thought he was a dickhead, and said as much in writing. She got word through the Prince Regent’s librarian that it might be a good idea to dedicate her next book to him, to smooth things over. It wasn’t a suggestion, if you catch my drift.





In the years that Jane Austen lived with her sister and their friend Martha in a house in Chawton, she would write in a room with a squeaky door. She refused to have the door fixed, because she preferred to have warning of anyone approaching to interrupt. Those were some of the most productive years of her writing career: she worked on (writing, revising, and publishing) most of her major works during that time.

Jane Austen’s main hype-man was her Dad. George Austen stoked the flames of her literary mind with a huge home library, and took it upon himself to shop her early novels around to publishers (who were reluctant, to say the least, to publish books written by women – boo to them!). Later, her brother Henry took over the role of Jane’s agent, with similar determination.

Although she was shamefully over-looked (being anonymous and all) and under-paid (publishers being arseholes and all) in her own time, we sure as heck recognise her brilliance now. The most recent estimate puts sales of Pride And Prejudice at twenty-million copies in the 200 years since its publication. It’s amazing to think that her assets totalled less than £800 at the time of her death, and she never lived above the era’s poverty line… But let’s not end on such a bummer note. Let’s focus instead on how much we ardently admire this amazing lady, and the enduring power of her work.



Sanditon – Jane Austen

I’m slowly making my way through Jane Austen’s body of work: first up was Emma, then Pride And Prejudice. I couldn’t make up my mind which to read next… until the universe made it up for me. The wonderful folks at Oxford University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Sanditon for review. Never heard of it? Not surprising! Only the die-hard Austen fans really have. It’s the partial manuscript, her final effort, the one she was working on when she died, aged just 41.

If you take a look at the original manuscript (images are available, with transcription, open access at janeausten.ac.uk – good on them!), you can actually trace the timeline of Austen’s writing process. She began Sanditon on 27 January 1817, wrote twelve chapters, then set it aside on 18 March that year. She wrote to her niece a few days later, complaining that she felt unwell, and her condition deteriorated quickly. The unfinished novel, some 24,000 words, sat in a drawer and wasn’t published until more than a century after her death (in 1925). The title comes from the fictional seaside township she created for the story, Sanditon, though that title was applied retroactively (Austen herself never actually decided on a title for the manuscript). It was likely based on the real town of Worthing, where Austen stayed in 1805.

If someone handed you Sanditon without a cover or title page, you probably wouldn’t recognise it as one of Austen’s books. It’s set by the sea, for one thing, moving away from her traditional country-village settings and impoverished-gentry family homes. It may well be the first “seaside novel”, a short tradition in English lit that came after Austen’s time. It’s more than the setting, though, that sets Sanditon apart. Austen was clearly in the mood to mix things up. It starts with a bang, right in the middle of the action, where her novels would have usually begun with a bit of background information or family history (yes, we’re all thinking of “it’s a truth universally acknowledged” here).

She was drawing on a combination of the burgeoning trend for seaside holidays – resorts were capitalising on the reputation of fresh air and salt water bathing for “health” – and the site of cultural revolution that they represented. Here was a setting where the female body, so strictly policed in Austen’s world (real and fictional), was freed from its usual constraints. These towns had floating populations and attracted a variety of characters from all over, which gave her an opportunity (or would have, I guess) to explore new dynamics and new opportunities for humour and critique.





Austen didn’t stray too far from her repertoire, though: Sanditon is still a social satire, as best we can tell, a commentary on the ridiculousness of the craze for seaside holidays. It is also, in some ways, a gentle ribbing of hypochondriacs, people wealthy and privileged enough to imagine illnesses and cures, written by a woman who (we now know) was dying.

It all starts (with a bang, as I said) when the carriage of Mr & Mrs Parker topples over near the home of the Heywoods. Mr Parker is injured, and the carriage all kinds of buggered, so the couple stays with the Heywoods for a fortnight until everyone’s ready to get back on the road. Mr Parker speaks very fondly of Sanditon, a former fishing village; he and his business partner, Lady Denham, have designs on opening a fashionable seaside resort there.

Charlotte Heywood is the eldest daughter still living at the Heywood home (and, again as best we can tell, she was all set to become the main character). When Mr Parker and his carriage are ready to go, she tags along with them, and stays with the Parkers in Sanditon as a summer guest. There, she meets the locals, including Mrs Denham – a twice-widowed woman who got her fortune from her first husband, and her title from the second (wink-wink). She has some scheming and opportunistic family members (it is still an Austen novel, remember) hoping to secure her estate.





It’s a strong set-up, but unfortunately the Sanditon manuscript ends before everything can be laid out properly. More characters are introduced – like Mr Parker’s two sisters, self-declared invalids, and a brother – but the novel cuts off before they can be fully developed and their roles revealed. Still, Austen has just enough time to work in a few zingers.

“I am very sorry you met with your accident, but upon my word you deserved it.–Going after a Doctor!–Why, what should we do with a Doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the Poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a Doctor at hand.”

Lady Denham, page 35

And a pro health tip from Arthur: take your toast with a “reasonable” quantity of butter, because dry toast will ravage your stomach lining like a “nutmeg grater”. True fact!

Because Austen laid all the ground-work with Sanditon, it’s been a favourite of “continuators” – later writers who tried to complete the novel and emulate her style (her niece, Anna Lefoy, among them). That means there are a few different versions of Sanditon floating around, but my OUP edition is the OG: edited by Kathryn Sutherland (who has worked on a whole bunch of Austen projects), and presented faithfully to Austen’s original work. That means it’s a slim book (it is, after all, unfinished, and ends abruptly in the middle of Chapter 12), but it’s beautifully produced, with a well-researched author biography, introduction, and notes.

Ultimately, Sanditon reads like what it is: a first draft of an incomplete novel. There’s enough of Austen’s natural talent and brilliance there to make it worth reading, but also enough to bum you out – it is terribly, terribly sad that this work will forever remain unfinished (continuators be damned). Still, I appreciated this little window into Austen’s mind, and the opportunity to see the machinations that came before her formally polished and published prose.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sanditon:

  • “ “I am everything Jane Austin”!” – Gloria Groot
  • “didnt finish” – Joan Strochak
  • “This is not the complete book, only the section Jane Austen wrote” – C. Jones
  • “Slow to start but got better near the end …..” Kaya Penelope
  • “Disappointed with ending, author seems to have tired of writing and abruptly ends the story.” – Teri Jensen

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. Then, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits the Bingleys’, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then, Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). Lizzie decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore, which pleases Wickham to no end.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (all the while I’m screaming bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock. Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine would definitely be the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



Now, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in writing, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

Note: in the end, I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice so much that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran


Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually, but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.





The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.





Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

Want to know how I got on with Pride And Prejudice? Read my full review here.

Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


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