I think that Susannah Carson has had the dream job working as editor of A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, a new literary collection of essays published by Random House. Personally, I can think of nothing more engaging and rewarding than scouring through essays on Jane Austen from past publications and working with writers to develop new ones. The result is a very polished and informative ensemble of literary ‘enlightenments’ on why many noteworthy writers read Jane Austen and her lasting influence.
I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the book last month. Even though opinions on Austen vary as greatly in this book as her enduring appeal to readers, it is one of its endearing flaws, inspiring deeper reflection on my favorite author and why I enjoy reading her. I was also intrigued why Susannah was inspired to edit this book and why she reads Jane Austen herself. Here is her thoughtful reply:
I’ve been asked why I read Jane Austen, and that’s a dangerous question since I could start answering it now and never stop—and so never read the actual novels ever again. In a great triumph of will I’ll rein myself in and give a tidy little list of a response. I read Jane Austen…
Because of the lines “Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint,” “You pierce my soul,” “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs; she times them ill,” “Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, for there is no hope of a cure,” “If one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another,” “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” And it’s not just these lines clipped out—it’s the character, situation, and world in which they’re set.
Because she’s a pleasure to read. The language glistens; it sounds like what it says. There’s the hectic Kitty-discretion-coughs, the logical formula of Maria Bertram’s logical thought, “If one scheme fails, then…,” Mary Crawford’s sibilant, seductive trochaic pentameter “selfishness must always be forgiven.” Austen helped me figure out how to play with grammar, words, music, and poise.
Because she’s funny. It’s hard to explain how her comedy works exactly, just as it’s fatal to take apart a good joke. The mode is cynical without being nihilistic, lighthearted without being insincere, constant without being overmuch. It’s a humour that comes from knowledge: from seeing things from different points of view at the same time—that’s my favorite definition of irony. There’s the humour of Elizabeth hearing and then retelling Darcy’s slight of her at the ball: “not handsome enough to tempt me.” She’s one up on Darcy there, and that’s funny enough. But there’s an additional level of humour, for we readers know she really is peeved and that she’ll hold on to that slight and mull it over so that whatever else she’s feeling she’s still thinking about him. And on still another level there’s the grand irony of the book: that their initial aversion will develop into the greatest love affair in the history of the novel.
Because she teaches us how to love. And not in the traditional wedding-topper conception of happy couples. Austen’s heroes and especially her heroines come on the page with fantastic, individuated personalities—but they each have a flaw. Somehow, they’re getting in the way of their own happiness and they’re just not ready for love. Throughout the course of the novels, they come to recognize their self-sabotaging flaws. They grow into themselves; they grow up. And when this happens, after they’ve done some soul-searching and some hard self-work, Austen grants them the supreme authorial benediction of a wedding. If we look for love, we won’t find it—think Lydia and Wickham, Marianne and Willoughby, Emma and Frank Churchill, Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford, Captain Wentworth and the two Musgrove sisters. They were looking for love without being ready. We often get this wrong about Austen: she’s not just about the Lizzie-and-Darcy-sitting-in-a-tree sort of love. She’s more about getting a clearer picture of how our hearts tick in ourselves and how they can then chime along with the hearts of others.
Because I get to connect with other readers. Putting A Truth Universally Acknowledged together has allowed me to come in contact with people who love Jane Austen. As in Kipling’s short story, love of Austen serves as a secret handshake used to identify like-minded souls. It’s like finding out that you’re descendant from the same great-great aunt. There’s an immediate affinity, trust, readiness to like.
Because the great critics have read her, thought about her, and written on her. I like reading books on books. This might not seem intuitive (just read the books themselves!), and yet I like finding out what other people think because it helps me refine my own thoughts. There’s a kernel of profit in any criticism, even when we find ourselves shaking our heads and muttering “pish-posh.” But it’s lovely to come across criticism that naturally hums with our own experiences, that clearly expresses our inchoate half-thoughts, that gets right to the heart of the matter. Our love of Austen allows us to curl up with a novel and a cup of tea, if we’re in a quiet mood, or to be part of a clamorous book club of eternal, universal proportions if we’re in the mood for a party. And that, dear fellow Janeites, is why I’m so pleased to have been able to put together “A Truth Universally Acknowledged.”
My thanks to editor Susannah Carson for sharing her insights with us today. We all have our personal reasons why we read Austen. She can be so many things to different people. It is her enduring legacy.
A Truth Universally Acknowledged is a book I will return to many times over the years, and well worth your consideration.