All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, by Amy Elizabeth Smith – A Review

All Roads Lead To Austen, by Amy Elizabeth Smith (2012)Guest Review by Syrie James

Amy Elizabeth Smith, an English professor at a private California university, uses her development leave to test a theory: how do Jane Austen’s novels resonate with readers in Latin America? Do people identify with her characters and story lines? In other words, does Austen translate across time, distance, and language? In All Roads Lead to Austen, Smith explores these questions and more in six different countries, conducting Jane Austen reading groups “on the road.” Along the way, she’s immersed in local culture, history, and literature, makes valuable friendships, and… meets and falls in love with the man she is going to marry.

Yes, you heard right! Smith hooks us Janeites right off the bat by revealing that her real-life adventure has a very Austen ending—and what could be better than that? She writes in a clear, personable style that is witty, intelligent, engrossing, and filled with interesting details.

Smith’s travels begin with a Spanish language immersion course in Guatemala, followed by a romantic stay in Mexico where, on the first day, she spends all her money on books instead of groceries. She (alarmingly) becomes seriously ill with a life-threatening tropical disease, thankfully recovers, feeds tame iguanas in Ecuador, flees the police in Chile, dines on delicious food in Paraguay, and encounters tango dancers on the street in Buenos Aires.

Amusingly (at least to this reader), it seems that everywhere she goes, Smith is hit upon by men looking for a hot date. She learns the hard way that her naturally friendly disposition is unintentionally giving the wrong signals. When she innocently accepts an invitation from a (married!) older man—the doorman of her apartment building—to “have coffee, just as friends,” to her shock and dismay, he grabs her and French kisses her. Later, one of Smith’s new female friends tells her:

“You’re pretty dumb for a smart woman… First of all, you can’t be friends with Chilean men. Period. Any Chilean man asking you anywhere, unless it’s strictly work related, is coming on to you… Second… university professors do not date doormen. I’m not saying this is right—I’m just telling you how it is. This Alberto knows that university professors don’t date doormen, so he naturally assumed that if you were willing to go out with him, it’s because you were looking for some fun. You know—something physical.”

All those reports about Latin lovers, it seems, are true! And as Smith points out:

Class is an issue in all of Austen’s novels… [along with] the precise ranking of who is above whom (and how far) and who can be matched with whom… Apparently, if I magically landed in Emma, my being a professor means that Robert Martin, the kind farmer who loved Emma’s protégé Harriet, would be off limits—except for a roll in the hay.

Smith spends her days reading the celebrated local authors, filling her suitcases to the bursting point with books, and sending home box loads more. Many of the cities she visits have areas with extensive book malls, book stalls, and book shops that are, as she puts it, “used book heaven.” Smith writes:

This sort of book commerce has all but disappeared from the States, a fact that truly makes me sad. A person simply can’t earn a living in a major city with a bookstall of the size operated by many people in Santiago. Large chains and Internet businesses are efficient, but for real booklovers, there’s nothing to replace the pleasure of browsing used bookshelves and visiting with people who know every title they have for sale.

My favorite parts of the story were the small book group sessions, where Smith discusses Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma with animated, interesting people, and we learn what her Latin American readers think of Austen. Overwhelmingly, they agree that people today can identify with the people, situations, and human emotions in Austen’s novels, which reflect aspects of their own lives.

I give Smith props for her fearlessly honest and often moving portrayals of the people in this book, especially considering that many are identified by their real names. My only mild disappointment was that she didn’t devote more time to the romance. I would have liked more emotions, more intimate details—more love story. But I can totally understand why, since this is a true story, the author might have been reluctant to reveal too many personal details on that score.

I picked up All Roads Lead to Austen thinking it was going to be an Austenesque novel, and when I discovered that it was a non-fiction travel memoir, I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea… but I absolutely loved it, and couldn’t put it down! It’s Eat, Pray, Love meets The Jane Austen Book Club—an unforgettable journey of the mind and heart.

Who does Smith end up marrying? I’ll never tell! But I will say this: when it comes down to making her decision, she does what any good Janeite would do: she relies on Austen as a guide to help her recognize her own Señor Darcy. Amy Elizabeth Smith’s memoir proves that we all have something to learn from Jane Austen, if we will only listen. Her tale is so fascinating, thought-provoking, and real, I felt as if I were there with her, every step of the way. I cheered at the ending, and so will you.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, by Amy Elizabeth Smith
Sourcebooks (2012)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-1402265853

Syrie James, hailed by Los Angeles Magazine as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings,” is an admitted Anglophile who loves All Things Austen. She is the bestselling author of five critically acclaimed novels: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Best First Novel, Library Journal); The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (2011 Audie Romance Award; Great Group Read, Women’s National Book Association); Nocturne (Best Book of 2011, The Romance Reviews, Suspense Magazine, and Austenesque Reviews); Dracula, My Love; and Forbidden, a YA paranormal romance that she co-wrote with her son, Ryan M. James. Syrie’s books have been translated into 16 foreign languages. Her short story leads the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It. A lifetime member of JASNA, RWA, and WGA, Syrie’s next novel, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen—the romantic story of a woman who discovers a previously unknown Austen novel—will be published by Berkley/Penguin Books in January 2013. Visit Syrie on Facebook, Twitter, and at

© 2012 Syrie James, Austenprose

In the Garden with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson – A Review

Cover of In the Garden with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson (2008)“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Chapter 9 

It seems quite fitting that a quote from Jane Austen’s character Fanny Price, who is an astute observer of natural beauty, should open this book with such a succinct statement expressing her delight in being planted on the bench in Sotherton’s parkland to enjoy the serene beauty of the green landscape around her. Verdure is not a word that one runs across very often in contemporary writing but we should, because it vividly describes a scene and sensations in one word. It is no leap of the imagination that Fanny’s creator Jane Austen gave her such sentiments, for Jane dearly loved nature herself and included references to it and gardening in her novels and letters. 

Author Kim Wilson must be a Fanny Price too, sensitive and observant to natures beauty as her new book In the Garden With Jane Austen is a verdurous delight, introducing us to Austen’s affinity to nature through the gardens she would have experienced in her own homes, family members and public gardens of Georgian and Regency England. This beautiful little volume is packed full of quotes from her novels and letters referencing her characters experiences in the garden and her own love of garden cultivation. It has always appeared to me that some of the best plot development in her novels happened while her characters were walking and I am reminded that her heroine’s Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Morland, and Emma Woodhouse were all proposed to in a garden or on a woodland path. Hmm? Should we take a clue from this ladies and get your men outside? 

Emma resolved to be out of doors as soon as possible. Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her. She longed for the serenity they might gradually introduce…she lost no time in hurrying into the shrubbery. There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr. Knightley passing through the garden door, and coming towards her. The Narrator, Emma, Chapter 49 

Ms. Wilson has certainly done her research collecting many quotes and antecedents from Austen’s novels, letters and family lore effectively placing them in historical context and illustrated with beautiful photographs of the actual locations mentioned. I felt like I was on a personal garden tour of Austen’s life as I traveled from the cottage gardens of her home in Steventon and Chawton, to the manor house gardens of her family such as brother Edward at Godersham Park, Goodnestone Park, and Chawton House, and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey owned by her cousins the Leigh’s. We are also treated to views of other famous estates that might have inspired settings in her novels such as Chatsworth House reputed to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice and Cottesbrook Hall for Mansfield Park

Even though this is a lovely pictorial edition, the text is what really shines with so many facts and observations on how nature and gardens influenced Jane Austen’s life and writings. I will admit to a more than slight disappointment in the book’s small size and paperback format though in comparison to other comparably priced larger sized hardcover editions on the market. 

I must confess a large prejudice in favor of this book even before it was published since it combined two of my passions, Jane Austen and gardening. My admiration of Jane Austen by this blog is apparent, but readers will not know that I was trained as a landscape designer and worked in the field for several years. When I finally had the book in hand, I was happy to discover that the last chapter is devoted to re-creating a Jane Austen inspired garden yourself reminiscent of a Regency or Georgian era. What a fanciful thought that plants that Austen admired can be obtained and grown either in a classic presentation, a few simple pots of garden herbs or her favorite flowering shrub the syringa placed by your front door to remind you everyday that looking upon verdure in the perfect refreshment.

“Wonderfully informative, full of detail, illustrated with ravishing photographs – a must for any Austen fan.” Andrew Davies

Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Further Reading

Read another review by Janeite Deb at Jane Austen in Vermont Blog 

Read another review by Linda Brazil at Each Little World Blog

In The Garden With Jane Austen
By Kim Wilson
Foreward by Celia Simpson, Jane Austen’s House Head Gardener
Jones Books, Madison, Wisconsin
Paperback, 114 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 9780979047510