Jane Austen is one of the most well-known authors in the English language. While she did not publish much, or to great financial success during her lifetime, her legacy is tremendous. Some may find this intimidating, but the writing in the best Jane Austen books is witty, accessible, and still incredibly relevant social commentary.
If you have watched one of the many adaptations of her works and are curious to visit the original material for yourself, you will not be disappointed. There are common themes throughout all of her books. However, each one holds a special place and meaning that makes it a unique offering.
So, keep reading to find out more about the best Jane Austen books.
Who is Jane Austen?
One of the most recognizable names in literature is Jane Austen. However, she lived a relatively short life and only published four novels during her life. Two were published posthumously by her brother, but all have become beloved classics.
Austen was the seventh child with seven siblings: Six brothers and one sister. Her brother Henry would be the one to take on the role of her literary agent later on in her writing career. She also had a very close relationship with her sister Cassandra.
Throughout her childhood Jane was encouraged to read and write. She attended boarding school for a time, before returning home where she took advantage of the library her father kept as a member of the clergy.
This list of the best Jane Austen books will only look at her six main novels. In those books, marriage acts as a pivotal plot point. However, Austen only received one known marriage proposal in her lifetime.
In a turn of fate not unlike her fiction, Austen first agreed to the proposal for the benefit to her and her family. But the very next day Austen revoked her acceptance.
Years later Austen emphasized her stance on marriage in a letter to her niece. Austen told her that anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection. This is a sentiment that is echoed by many of Austen’s beloved heroines.
Jane Austen’s Legacy
It is tragic that throughout her lifetime, Jane Austen only achieved peaks and valleys in the success of her books. While she had beloved fans, such as the future King George IV, it never translated into financial success for Austen and her family. Following the death of her father, the family underwent financial hardships.
Austen also battled with copyright claims for a previous publication deal that never came to fruition. But as she settled into a cottage on her brother’s property in 1809, things appeared to be aligning for her. She began to write more and establish a rhythm, but unfortunately her health began to decline.
She was never able to see the lasting success of her novels, or even have her name associated with her writing. Austen began her final work, Sanditon, in the months before her death before setting it aside while writing the twelfth chapter. The incomplete version became available in print in the early twentieth century.
Following her death, her brother Henry wrote an endearing biography that identified his sister for the first time in the posthumously publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Her previous books were published anonymously.
While millions of copies of her books have now been sold, during her lifetime the money earned from her books would not have lifted Austen above the poverty line during her 15-year career.
As well, for 12 years following her death, her books were out-of-print. There was then a resurgence of popularity for Austen during the Victorian era. It has persisted in waves ever since.
Jane Austen’s Adaptations
There are often peaks in the popularity of Jane Austen whenever a new adaptation premieres.
Nothing can divide a room of Janeites quite as swiftly as declaring a preference between the 1995 mini-series and the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But a contender for that divisive nature is the most recent adaptation of Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson.
There have been dozens and dozens of more adaptations throughout the years to varying degrees of success and longevity. But Austen’s books have been immortalized and engrained in popular culture. Her books have also been the inspiration for many literary retellings in a variety of genres and eras.
But, without further preamble, let’s finally take a look at the best Jane Austen books ranked.
Best Jane Austen Books
Creating a list of the best Jane Austen books can be a bit like lighting a match around gasoline — bibliophiles can get serious about a definitive ranking of her books.
So, let’s address this right away. Most lists will obviously differ depending on personal opinion. As well, none of Austen’s books are bad by any stretch of the imagination.
This is a list of the best Jane Austen books, because all of them are fantastic in their own way. But every list needs some sort of order to it.
In order to get a definitive ranking, this list leverages Goodreads data. This helps accumulate the thoughts of the broader reading public to get a sense of the general consensus.
However, in each summary we’ll take a close look at each book. This will help explain the nuances a bit more critically. Finally, this list of the best Jane Austen books only includes her main six novels.
6. Mansfield Park
Using Goodreads data, Mansfield Park comes in sixth on our list of the best Jane Austen books. It has more than 320,000 ratings on Goodreads with a 3.82 average rating.
Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s more melancholy books. It also has a controversial main character in Fanny Price who many readers dislike for her high morals. However, there is a quiet courage in Fanny throughout the progression of the novel.
Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park. There she is acutely aware of her humble rank. Her cousin Edmund becomes her sole ally.
But during her uncle’s absence in Antigua, the Crawford’s arrive in the neighbourhood. They bring with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation.
Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen’s first mature work. As well, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound. It was published one year after Pride and Prejudice and one year before Emma, which has its own controversial female character.
5. Northanger Abbey
The next book on this list of the best Jane Austen books remains one of her least popular. It edges in only slightly above Mansfield Park. It has nearly 354,000 ratings and a 3.84 average rating on Goodreads. However, this is arguably Jane Austen’s most underrated novel.
Northanger Abbey is quite different from Austen’s other works, because this one is much more satirical in nature. If you enjoy satire, Gothic Romance, and classics such as Wuthering Heights, then you will absolutely adore this book.
The greater your understanding and interest of classic Gothic Literature, the more you will likely enjoy this book. It is Austen’s take on the genre and its tropes, and she takes great pleasure in pointing out the idiosyncrasies within the stereotypes. She even has two characters named Catherine, which is simultaneously hilarious and delightful.
There are decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers to give the story an uncanny air. But it is one with a decidedly satirical twist. The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage.
While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney. He then invites her to visit his family estate: Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions.
What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey? Can she trust Henry, or is he part of an evil conspiracy?
Catherine finds dreadful portents in the most prosaic events. That is until Henry persuades her to see the peril in confusing life with art.
Next on our list of the best Jane Austen books is another title that is often overlooked. But this may be changing with the hype, and controversy, surrounding the latest adaptation of Persuasion. It has nearly 613,000 ratings on Goodreads with a 4.15 average rating.
This is also where the official Jane Austen website recommends new readers to begin with the author’s bibliography. That’s because it is her shortest work. Therefore, it provides a good introduction to her writing style with just 24 chapters.
Persuasion is also a more melancholic book, featuring an older protagonist than Austen’s other books. In the character of Anne Elliot, Austen has created someone for whom readers will feel an intense sympathy. Unlike the new Netflix adaptation, the only fourth-wall break in the book will be from the reader’s desire to break through the pages and comfort Anne.
In addition to being a social critique of the era, it features a poignant story about first love and second chances. Austen brilliantly dissects social hierarchy and class structure, as well as the role of women in society. It also features an epistolary declaration of love that rivals Mr. Darcy’s second proposal of marriage.
Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, a woman who — at twenty-seven — is no longer young and has few romantic prospects. Eight years ago, her friend Lady Russell convinced Anne to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a handsome naval captain with neither fortune nor rank.
When Anne and Frederick meet again, he has acquired both, but still feels the sting of her rejection. What ensues is a slow-burn of epic proportion that will have readers eagerly anticipating its conclusion.
The third best Jane Austen book is Emma. This opposes the author’s view from her lifetime that she was writing a character that only she would particularly like. On Goodreads it has more than 777,000 ratings with an average rating of 4.03.
Austen has the incredible ability to bring her characters to life. Her heroines are realistic in their flaws and attributes. This is absolutely true for Emma with her tendency to meddle and intrude despite her good intentions.
Unlike many of Austen’s other female main characters though, Emma does not face the crippling necessity to marry for security. With her position in society secure Emma turns to those around her and plays matchmaker. For the majority of the novel she is oblivious that her actions may not always be the most welcome.
Twenty-one-year-old Emma Woodhouse is comfortably dominating the social order in the village of Highbury. She is sure that she has both the understanding and the right to manage other people’s lives — for their own good, of course.
Her well-meant interfering centers on the aloof Jane Fairfax, the dangerously attractive Frank Churchill, the foolish if appealing Harriet Smith, and the ambitious young vicar Mr. Elton. And it ends with her complacency shattered. Her mind awakened to some of life’s more intractable dilemmas, and her happiness assured.
Austen’s comic imagination was so deft and beautifully fluent that she could use it to probe the deepest human ironies while setting before us a dazzling gallery of characters. Some pretentious or ridiculous, some admirable and moving, all utterly true.
As Austen is known for, Emma also has an iconic declaration of love at its conclusion that has held readers captive for more than two centuries now.
2. Sense and Sensibility
Coming in as the second best Jane Austen book according to Goodreads data is Sense and Sensibility. This book has more than one million ratings with a 4.08 average rating. It was Austen’s first publication.
As with all Austen novels it is a cunning social critique. Sense and Sensibility follows two sisters, each embodying one of the titular attributes, as they encounter the tumultuous journey of love in their own ways.
Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her.
Through their parallel experience of love — and its threatened loss — the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.
Just like Mansfield Park and Persuasion, this is one of Austen’s more melancholic books.
1. Pride and Prejudice
Finally, it should come as no surprise that the best Jane Austen book by general consensus, at least according to Goodreads data, is Pride and Prejudice. It has an incredible nearly 3.7 million ratings on the site with a 4.28 average rating.
Upon its publication in 1813 Pride and Prejudice was an immediate success and it has remained so. The love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is iconic. Amidst the popularity of the enemies-to-lovers trope in modern romance, this duo embodies that tension, confusion, and desire — with caustic banter thrown in.
When Elizabeth Bennet first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited. Meanwhile, he is indifferent to her good looks and lively mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the newfound relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is steadfast in her determination to dislike him more than ever.
In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows us the folly of judging by first impressions. She superbly evokes the friendships, gossip, and snobberies of provincial middle-class life.
Final thoughts on the best Jane Austen books
To recap, the best Jane Austen books are:
As it has been more than 200 years since the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, it is inevitable that her books have been read in every order imaginable. Therefore, you can take comfort in knowing that no matter which Austen novel you read first, there is no wrong way to experience her books. Each brings wit, humor, and love in its own way.
If you have already begun your Austen reading journey, then it’s also very likely that you have your own distinct order of the best Jane Austen books. Any list ranking her works will inevitably differ depending on personal opinion, but using Goodreads data from hundreds of thousands of readers is a great way to get a snapshot of the legacy of Austen’s works.
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