One of our recommended books is Austen Years by Rachel Cohen


A Memoir in Five Novels

An astonishingly nuanced reading of Jane Austen that yields a rare understanding of how to live.

“About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.”

In the turbulent period around the birth of her first child and the death of her father, Rachel Cohen turned to Jane Austen to make sense of her new reality. For Cohen, simultaneously grief-stricken and buoyed by the birth of her daughter, reading Austen became her refuge and her ballast. She was able to reckon with difficult questions about mourning,

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An astonishingly nuanced reading of Jane Austen that yields a rare understanding of how to live.

“About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.”

In the turbulent period around the birth of her first child and the death of her father, Rachel Cohen turned to Jane Austen to make sense of her new reality. For Cohen, simultaneously grief-stricken and buoyed by the birth of her daughter, reading Austen became her refuge and her ballast. She was able to reckon with difficult questions about mourning, memorializing, living in a household, paying attention to the world, reading, writing, and imagining through Austen’s novels.

Austen Years is a deeply felt and sensitive examination of a writer’s relationship to reading, and to her own family, winding together memoir, criticism, and biographical and historical material about Austen herself. And like the sequence of Austen’s novels, the scope of Austen Years widens successively, with each chapter following one of Austen’s novels. We begin with Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she raises her small children and contemplates her father’s last letter, a moment paired with the grief of Sense and Sensibility and the social bonds of Pride and Prejudice. Later, moving with her family to Chicago, Cohen grapples with her growing children, teaching, and her father’s legacy, all refracted through the denser, more complex Mansfield Park and Emma.

With unusual depth and fresh insight into Austen’s life and literature, and guided by Austen’s mournful and hopeful final novel, Persuasion, Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years is a rare memoir of mourning and transcendence, a love letter to a literary master, and a powerful consideration of the odd process that merges our interior experiences with the world at large.

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  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • July 2020
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780374107031

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About Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen is the author of Austen YearsRachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, which won the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, and Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, which was long-listed for the JQ Wingate Literary Prize. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, the London Review of Books, The Believer, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, MacDowell, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago.


“[A] tender, rigorous criticism/memoir hybrid . . . [Austen Years] intimately matches Jane’s literary interrogations — especially those about how women process the infinite varieties of grief — with tender personal sketches. The premise could turn hokey, but Cohen’s readings are invigorating.” Vulture (29 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer)

“A wondrous mix of memoir and biography . . . [Austen Years] is a book not to be hurried through but consumed in small portions and pondered over as it sparks introspection. [Cohen’s] deep knowledge of and respect for Austen’s novels will equally impress Austenites and readers less versed in her works.”Booklist (starred review)

“A thoughtful meditation on the interweaving of literature and life . . . [Cohen] analyzes [Austen’s novels] with astute sensitivity . . . A nuanced portrait of a writer and reader.”Kirkus

“[An] erudite . . . exploration of connection and loss . . . Cohen’s writing at its best is lush and lyrical.”Publishers Weekly

“Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years is a work of compassionate and meditative alchemy. It explores the patterns that hold together life, art, love and loss; the spaces between memory and memorialisation, between literary creation and lived experience, between inspiration and revelation, reading and re-reading. Like the implacable action of tidal waters upon the shore, it returns to, shapes, and quietly unearths hidden treasures from what we thought was familiar ground. It’s an absolutely fascinating book: I will never read Austen the same way again.” —Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk

“I’m excited to read anything Rachel Cohen writes, inspired by the delicate precision of her thought and the grace of her expression. In Austen Years, the marriage of Rachel’s rare attentiveness with Jane Austen’s beloved novels makes for an exhilarating and beautiful book.”Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl




About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author. I began to read her before sleep every night, and when I woke in the night; I read her at my desk when I couldn’t make progress with the biography I was supposed to have finished writing, and on the slow bus that crossed the river to the ob-gyn. I would come to the end of a scene and turn the leaves back to read it again, almost without noticing. I was not sure what to make of my condition.

Was this a retreat, a seclusion? Life was running thin and fast across unfamiliar land. A baby was coming, a baby that M and I had wanted for a long time. We had known each other for twenty-one years and had been together for four. He and I are both slow to step forward. I had lived and taught in New York, but now we were where he taught, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The rhythm of days altered.

My father was ill. His cancer had recurred two years before I got pregnant. We were going forward, and we were also waiting. Sometimes anticipation was joyful; at other moments, time held like that odd prolongation one may feel right before an accident.

The world careened. When I saw pictures in the news of people who had been hurt, or killed, I was newly aware of the mourners at the edges and beyond the edges of the pictures. Over every person I saw cross the street seemed to hover the anxious thought “That is a mother’s child.” I had stopped teaching and did not have a place to tend. The weather, the seasons, were unpredictable and strange. At night, I folded up the day, as I did the small clothes people were giving us, uneasily.

In the past, as I had worked on writing my first book, and on different series of essays, if anyone happened to ask me what I was reading, I was relieved. To say “I’m reading James Baldwin,” or “I’m reading Russian poets,” was to give the truthful answer one never does to the polite question “How are you?” I had meant, among other things, “I’m paying attention.” Now I sat on the bus that went across the river, with a finger holding a place in Persuasion, and heard again in my mind the sound of the coming baby’s heartbeat. On the pages, there was asperity, definiteness, endings known, bearable, even triumphant. Still, if you had told me that years were coming when I would hardly pick up another serious writer with any real concentration, that the doings of a few English families would come to define almost the entire territory of my reading imagination, and that I would reach a point of such familiarity that I would simply let Austen’s books fall open and read a sentence or two as people in other times and places might use an almanac to soothe and predict, I would have been appalled.

* * *

The baby was born, in spring. Light and sound ran through her, every lamp, every shadow of a leaf. I would walk with her in the streets around our apartment, stepping softly because she would startle awake at any passing car. I tried to be with her, I was with her, in that hushed iridescence. This is still the atmosphere around S, quiet, intent.

In those first months, I would sometimes walk with her into one of two used bookstores, but the books seemed almost to repel me. I bought other copies of Jane Austen’s novels, ones with abstract covers, or interesting prefaces. In the evenings, we would put S to sleep next to our bed, in the cradle that had been mine when I was a baby, and then my sister’s, then, decades later, her daughter’s, and now was ours. M and I had attached a mobile with soft turtles to it; the light from the streetlamp outside would shadow the turtles on the wall, and they would tremble as S moved a little in her sleep. Coming and going in the night, I would read a few lines from Persuasion, and then a few more.

There was repose near Anne Elliot, who was experienced, and thoughtful. She had fallen in love with Captain Wentworth at nineteen, and had been persuaded to give up her engagement, “forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older.” It has happened gradually, “more than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close.” She meets him again at twenty-seven, an age when love and family would have begun to seem unlikely for a woman in Austen’s day. I was thirty-nine, M was forty, we had had two decades of complicated friendship, missed chances, other relationships. It still seemed very near to me, the lives that might have been. I had been with women and men, relationships serious, deep, but I had not been able to promise permanence. Writing from within a household had made me territorial and secretive; I had followed the writing out of the relationships. It had been when I had learned, the first time, that my father had cancer, that I had gone through a year of loneliness and change that I could no longer postpone. Second chances may come when some chances are gone. Austen is always described as witty, stylish, but Persuasion is a melancholy book. Anne is still in mourning for her mother. I loved its odd mixture of sorrow and hope.

* * *

As month followed month, I sometimes said to friends, bookish friends, that Austen was all I read. They were usually somewhere between encouraging and tactful. “Austen is domestic,” one said, looking around at our living room, which was littered with objects that I by then categorized as intended to be chewed on and not safe to chew on. The implication, one I couldn’t entirely disagree with, was that my sphere of life had been constrained more or less to the walls of our house, and that naturally I would read something drawn to similar dimensions.

It was 2012 when S was born. Until I was pregnant and my father was ill, I had preserved my concentration and my apartness by avoiding having a cell phone, but I felt I should be more reachable and bought one. Now, wherever I was, there was elsewhereness. I had been afraid that this would change the shape of my mind, and it did.

I had been a copious keeper of journals. I began instead to take very brief notes, more often visual ones. I photographed my ever-different body in the mirror. Was this self-acceptance or bidding farewell? My mind went on playing over certain phrases from Austen, not the famous epigrams and ripostes, but ones that to me suggested depths. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice exclaims to herself, “Till this moment I never knew myself.” In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price wonders aloud about memory: “Our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Emma’s inner life moves “with all the wonderful velocity of thought.” Anne Elliot in Persuasion speaks out loud to a friend of her experience “of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” I did not know why these little groups of words felt so clear and whole and inexhaustible, but they did.


Last thing at night, I almost always read Austen. But in the morning, I would read the news online. The pictures were of the worst refugee crisis since World War II; of mourning and protests in different American cities after a series of racist killings; of repeated acts of terrorism; and of calamitous forest fires, earthquakes, oil spills, the end of tigers, of frogs, of polar bears, of the migration of the monarchs. At the beginning of these years, I did not think that an even darker period of national and international life might be coming, but the world was full of foreboding signs. I began to read one other thing: memoirs.

In my reading life, I had, to this point, avoided memoirs. I had taught what is called creative nonfiction at universities and colleges for nearly ten years, and at first, I had been quite sharp in discouraging my students from writing about themselves. I wanted them to look outward. I taught them to write about history, rivers, art, but could not avoid noticing that many of their best pieces began from their own experiences. One of the students had grown up on the Navajo Nation in what is now called Arizona; another had grown up working on urban farms in abandoned lots in downtown Detroit; many had been through violence; several had survived cancer; most struggled bravely for money and time. My students were eighteen, and fifty-four, and eighty. Over years, I learned to see how their stories brought the world, and now that I had stopped teaching, their stories were often with me.

Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Cohen