Geoff Dyer and many others at the TLS:
We did Emma for A Level, so it was one of the first serious novels I ever read. In a sense, then, Jane Austen is literature to me. She was not just one of the first novelists I read but also the oldest, i.e. earliest. You can start further back, of course, but romping through Tom Jones feels like a bit of a waste of olde time in the way that Persuasion never does. I associate reading Austen with a consciousness of the gap between my limited life experience – swilling beer, basically – and the expanded grasp of the psychological subtleties and nuances of situations and relationships that her books gradually revealed. But I’m conscious also of a different kind of gap: that between the riches afforded by the novels and the tedium of the criticism served up alongside them. Macmillan Casebooks – anthologies of critical essays – were the default educational tools even though most of the pieces in the one on Emma are complete dross. The process whereby “doing English” morphed into “doing criticism” began with Austen and continued all the way through university. Was this a purposeful deterrent? George Steiner is right: the best critical essay on Jane Austen is Middlemarch.
Whereas my head is full of Shakespeare, only a few lines from Austen have stayed with me – the very ones, predictably, that had us smirking at school: “Anne had always found such a style of intercourse highly imprudent” (Persuasion), or Mr Elton “making violent love” to Emma in a carriage.