When the new Austen literary tome A Truth Universally Acknowledged edited by Susannah Carson started off with a foreword by Harold Bloom the famous American writer, literary critic and current Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, I was more than a bit anxious fearing the book would be over my head. Firstly, I am neither a scholar nor a brilliant intellectual and have trouble understanding all the pedantic puffery about Jane Austen that passes as literary criticism these days. Moreover, do I really need 33 great writers making me feel inadequate? Secondly, if these great minds explain to me why I read Jane Austen, the last veil will have fallen and the party will be over. After years of awe and admiration, do I really want to see the wizard behind the curtain?
My apprehension was softened after reading Bloom’s foreword. I smiled deeply when he expressed why we read Jane Austen. This was a promising beginning. “[S]he seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are as both readers and as human beings.” He makes her sound like she sits on the right hand of God! He is definitely on to something. The balance of essays are from a wide range of Austen admirers: contemporary and classic authors, movie directors, literary critics and scholars. Some of the essays are newly commissioned from contemporary writers such as Anna Quindlen, Jay McInerney, A.S. Byatt and Amy Heckerling. Others are from deceased literary giants such as C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham and previously published in the last century. The editor Susannah Carson has also contributed her own slant on Austen’s current appeal from her essay Reading Northanger Abbey. Here is a memorable passage.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen’s novels are about marriage: they all end with at least one successful match, and sometimes as many as three. Dating guidebooks have been compiled from advice culled from her novels, suggesting that much of Austen’s current appeal lies in her treatment of romance plot. If we read Austen, will we improve our chances of finding the right mate? Perhaps, but such instruction is incidental: Austen does not set out to describe ideal relationships. Her interest is in flawed characters who achieve a greater level of self understanding throughout the course of each novel and who are rewarded at the end with the relationship which, although never entirely perfect, are perfect for them.”
Carson hit the nail on the head for me. Austen’s characters and plots are indeed perfect imperfections. That is why I am so drawn to them. There are also many other tidbits of wisdom and insight throughout the book, along with some pure folly and nonsense. Some still think Fanny Price is a prig. (C.S. Lewis defends her bless his heart). One felt that the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet’s appeal is diminished by accepting Mr. Darcy who is a dud and not her intellectual equal. Another had mixed feelings about Austen’s masterpiece Emma. And those in the Henry Tilney camp will need a strong dose of aromatic vinegar after reading that he and Catherine Morland are ill suited for marriage; his acerbic wit quickly growing tired of her vapid naivety. The upside of a book containing essays is that you’re not stuck for very long with an author you’re not enjoying or learning from. The downside is when the majority fall into that category. Happily, opinions on Austen vary as greatly in this book as her enduring appeal to readers. There is something here for every level of adulation, Janeite or scholar; even some “Till this moment I never knew myself” epiphanies.
Like Austen’s characters, this book does have its endearing flaws. To understand the context of the essays, you must have read Austen or seen a movie or two. Hopefully the former. Unfortunately, the essays are not dated, so the reader is left to peruse the biographies of the writers in the back of the book to understand the timeframe of when the essay might have been written. It also suffers from some wobbly bits of unevenness in cohesion as a whole. 33 great writers enthusiastically enlighten us on why we read Jane Austen, wander a bit, individually entertain, but do not always directly address the primary theme. Honestly, in their defense, I do not think the question of why we read Jane Austen is answerable to everyone’s satisfaction. It is far too personal, and therein lays Austen’s brilliance and success. In actuality, what should be asked is why we continue to read Jane Austen? There is big a difference. Many read Austen for the first time in school because they were required to. Those who return to re-read her offer the greatest compliment that an author can receive and a testament to her enduring appeal. After nearly two hundred years of complements queuing up in support of her works it is no wonder that she is the literary and pop media phenomenon that many of the essays expound upon.
Regardless of my quibbles with the semantics, if you are enthralled by Austen’s alluring prose and are intrigued to learn what great writers have said about her over the last century, this volume is the most accessible and enjoyable ensemble of Austen essays I have read. Kudos to editor Carson (who by-the-way is herself a doctoral candidate and literary scholar) for having the foresight and ingenuity to pull together a collection of writers who do not all look down at Janeites from an ivory tower and are not afraid to show a personal side of their adulation. This everyman Austen reader is most grateful, and happy that in conclusion, Austen is as enigmatic as ever.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson
Random House (2009)
Hardcover (288) pages