A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers On Why We Read Jane Austen ed. Susannah Carson

I know I’m supposed to be reading American literature, but this sounded irresistible when it came out, and it’s been on my library hold list for weeks, and when it finally came in…I couldn’t help myself! I have been immersed in it for days, actually looking forward to going to work so that I could read it on the train!

I am a self confessed Janeite; I wrote about this a few months ago, just after visiting Chawton Cottage. I love her books like old friends, and return to them often. Every re-read adds a new layer of richness to my appreciation of these novels, as different things strike me anew and my increasing age enables me to gain a deeper understanding of and insight into the struggles and joys of the deeply beloved characters who come so alive to me on the pages. Reading this collection of wonderful essays was such an enlightening and pleasurable and exciting experience, and I am now desperate to pick up everything Jane Austen wrote and have a Jane Austen marathon, taking the insights of some of these authors and bringing them with me as I read. Obviously not all of the essays are as good as the others, and some are a little too academic and clinical for my liking, but you can easily skip over those and move onto the better ones.

Susannah Carson has brought a depth to Northanger Abbey that I never considered as being there before; far from just a mockery of gothic novels, it is, she argues, a mockery of the novel form itself, and a very clever one at that. Perhaps the marriage of Catherine and Henry is supposed to be unbelievable, and Austen purposely places a very artificial romance at the heart of her novel to poke fun at the general artifice of romance. I like this take on things, and as I haven’t reread Northanger Abbey in years, I’m now keen to do so, and see whether I think Carson’s comments ring true. Martin Amis, in a wonderfully funny essay, highlights the spirit, sociability and character reformation in Pride and Prejudice, and the irony of having a silly, frivolous character in Mrs Bennett, who actually turns out to be right in her machinations. Forcing her daughter to catch cold does result in two very fine marriages, and so really, is she as silly as she seems? Amy Heckerling writes a fascinating essay on how she transported the cast of Emma from 19th century Highbury to 21st century Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless, exploring the timeless quality of Austen’s novels in the process.

Most of the other essays touch on similar topics; Jane’s morals, her manners, her emphasis on wit, her small and precise milieu, her reasons for not writing about the immediate political environment of her novels, her lack of emphasis on description of appearances and surroundings – our impressions of ‘Jane’s Regency World’ all come from the televised costume dramas, not her words. They are all interesting, all eye opening, all full of passion and appreciation for this most beloved author whose novels have endured over two centuries of massive social change, and are still just as enjoyed as they were on the day they were published. What makes them so timeless? Well, the humanity of them. As J B Priestley argues, if Jane Austen had written about war and political unrest, her novels would be dry and dusty and too tied to their specific point in time. By making them about people; their personalities, their mistakes, their foibles, their romances; she has made them completely and utterly relatable to any human being at any point in time. I don’t know what it was like to live through the Napoleonic wars, but I do know what it’s like to love. Tolstoy is admired, but adored? I think not. Jane Austen knew what she was doing. She was not a trivial, uninformed woman. She was an intelligent, far thinking one. She knew what really mattered to people, and here we are, still nodding with recognition at Emma’s soon to be regretted smugness; crying at Captain Wentworth’s letter; rejoicing at Elinor’s realisation that Edward is free to marry her after all; swooning at Mr Darcy’s gruff proposal; railing with frustration at Edmund’s blindness to Fanny’s purity over Mary Crawford’s artifice, and smiling indulgently at Catherine’s naivety, two hundred years later.

Do read this collection, if you can. It is a wonderful homage to Jane Austen, and I know I will certainly be buying my own copy to dip in and out of often.

60 comments

  1. I’m in the middle of re reading Sense and Sensibility – and loving it. This time I’m really noticing the weather, the countryside and money discussions. What will I notice next time I read it I wonder…

    1. I haven’t reread S and S in a long time and I’d love to – it’s always such a joy to reread an Austen because something new truly does jump out every time and add to your enjoyment. What a rich six novels they are! Enjoy!

  2. How could you resist? I can’t blame you at all. And I’m sure some of the essay writers are American, so that counts. Right?

    This is instantly going on my birthday wish list, which is happily after the end of my self-imposed book-buying ban. Just in case I don’t get it, it will be a present to myself. It looks too good to miss.

    1. I know! Thank you! And you are absolutely right – a large amount of the essays were written by American writers. That makes it positively OK!

      This IS too good to miss – fingers crossed you get it for a birthday surprise but if not – definitely treat yourself!

  3. Rachel, your comments are interesting, especially the last bit about the timelessness of Jane Austen’s writing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the books I chose to read and the one’s I enjoy the most. My favourites don’t tend to be ones that examine social issues but ones in which relationships are explored. Social issues can be discussed but not as the main issue.

    The comment about Tolstoy is interesting. I loved War and Peace, but my favourite parts were those about the people, not the battle scenes. The historiography at the end was a bit heavy, too, though interesting. The war scenes may also explore relationships and what it means to be human, as well, but all the descriptions of what was going on during the battles often left me confused.

    1. Thanks Virginia. Yes – I think the most timeless and enjoyable books are always the ones we can relate to. And the most timeless thing in the world is the way we relate to one other. This never changes! The essential emotions we feel today are no different from the ones people felt 1000 years ago.

      I enjoyed War and Peace too, but like you said, the battles, etc, and all the terminology involved, drag for many readers, because they’re not relatable. What is relatable is how the characters interact and the relationships that are built throughout the course of the novel, and so it is Natasha we remember, not the main battle scenes.

  4. Thanks for your great review of this one Rachel. I have had a copy of it on my shelf for a while now but have been “saving it” – no more, I want to dive in today!

    1. You are so welcome, Karen! Please dive in – the great thing about this is that you can just read a little essay a night and you don’t have to commit too much time to it if you’re in the middle of something else! Perfect for us busy Janeites!

  5. I loved this last year when, like you, I borrowed it from the library. I’ve definitely been keeping an eye out for copies in used bookstores since then as it’s one of those books I think would be wonderful to own – the perfect companion for when I’m rereading Austen!

    1. I’m glad you loved it too, Claire! This is definitely a book you don’t want to have to borrow, isn’t it? I’ll be hunting high and low for a copy too!

  6. I have a copy of this, which lovely Susan from TX got for my birthday – have yet to read it, but it’s nice to know it’s there, waiting…

    I recommend you seek out Talking of Jane Austen and More Talk of Jane Austen by GB Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith – similar sort of thing, but from 1950ish.

    1. Oh Simon, you lucky thing! Though I can’t believe you haven’t touched it! I know you’ll absolutely love it when you do pick it up.

      Thank you – I took note of those when you talked about them before and I’ll be certain to track down copies as soon as I can!

  7. I love Karenlibrarian’s justification for reading this. Of course, some of the authors are American. Love it! I love your post as well. The timelessness of Jane Austen’s works are such a gift to all of us these centuries later, and you express it so well here. I wonder at the many bestsellers of our age and how many of them will stand the test of time. Some will. Some will, but, most ???

    Thank you so much Rachel for such an exciting review.

    1. I know, I felt fine about reading this after Karen said that! Thank you Penny. I can’t think of any writer today whose words are as timeless and comforting and reassuring and wonderful as Jane Austen’s. She was a rare talent indeed and one I am eternally grateful for.

      You are so welcome Penny!

  8. I have always loved the novels of Jane Austen. She is one of my favorite authors and I reread her books, especially my favorite “Emma.” It is amazing how movie makers and television producers continue to make films out of her books and life, and writers continue to rewrite her novels (“The Three Weissmans Of Westport” and “The Cookbook Collector” are two recent examples.) But I am not surprised because Austen is universally and timelessly appealing. She gives us truths about life. And she wrote with humor, irony, and sharp insights into human nature and filled her novels with unforgettable characters, characters that we recognize in our lives. I can’t wait to read the book you are recommending.

    1. I’m glad you are another Austen fan, Sunday! Emma is my second favourite Austen and I delight in reading it every time. You are exactly right in what you say – Austen works in a way so few authors do – she manages to speak to the heart, and no matter who you are or what era you’re from, your heart never changes. I love seeing how Austen can be a companion from youth to old age, and translate from page to screen – she is such a treasure, and what a wonderful legacy to have left behind. I hope you manage to track this down and enjoy it as much as me!

  9. The only way I could love a Jane Austen more is if it produced chocolate, on the spot, whenever I wanted. I’ve read and re-read Persuasion I don’t know how many times. My dad just makes fun of me. Every time he sees me reading an Austen he’s like: “Have the words changed yet?” I just smile all sweetly at him: “Everytime.”
    Because it’s so true! Every single time you open it, you’re at a different stage in your life and another of her timeless themes and scenes are dead on the spot, absolutely, without a doubt true. We’ve all done it: trusted the too-charming boy, tried to set one of our girlfriends up with someone we thought was “worthy”, judged someone too quickly because of our own pride, or got caught up in our own romantic ideals that we failed to see the truth of things. And people, for as long as we’re on this earth, will continue to do so. I could talk Austen all day. I second Rachel’s reccomendation whole heartedly.

    1. Ha! That would truly be heaven on earth, wouldn’t it?!
      That’s so funny about your dad – how little does he know that he’s hit the nail on the head! Something new jumps out every time you reread, and some new experience can be brought to the pages and enrich your life in the process. They are such deep, truthful, heartfelt books that speak to all of us, and I am so glad you love this too! Thank you for your wonderful comment!

  10. This should be a ‘Jane’ -type response, but I just couldn’t help noticing in the right hand column that you are currently reading Letters from Constance by Mary Hocking. I have this on the shelf, read it years ago, and absolutely loved it. Hope you will post about it in due course.

    1. Hi Margaret! Any response is a fine response! I am loving Letters from Constance – such an unexpected and brilliant book. I am going to finish it tomorrow I should think so a review will be up shortly!

  11. Gosh durn it, Rachel! (A wee Americanism to drag you back to your adopted country of the moment…) I had to house my TBRs in a bigger bookcase (I’ll be blogging about it soon!) and dealt with that yesterday. As I looked at all the books I hope to read soon, I made a decision: no more book buying for a LONG time! I really can’t justify it!

    And then you come along with a book I MUST have! (I’ve now ordered it on amazon…) It’s my birthday on the 10th, so maybe I could think of it as a wee extra birthday present?

    I’ve always loved Jane Austen. Even studying P&P for part of my literature course didn’t put me off! On the contrary, it opened up so many new ways of reading and understanding it. I’ve downloaded Northanger Abbey to my Kindle. My problem is not ‘nothing to read’, but ‘too much to choose from’, but this one’ll be going to the top of the pile, or, in this case, the top of the larger bookcase…

    You’re a rascal!

    1. Oh Penny, haven’t I been naughty, tempting you so?! I am sorry!! But you won’t regret buying this, I promise!! The TBR pile can wait for another day!!

      Yes – I bet. I would have loved to study Austen at university but they had no such courses. I think we just did a bit about Mansfield Park and colonialism which I thought, and still do think, was rather far fetched, but interesting nonetheless. I want to re read Northanger Abbey – I think I’ve actually only read it once – and see whether I can get more from it than I did before. Seeing as I was probably in my teens when I last read it, I’m sure I will.

      1. My daughter, Jane, DID take a course on Jane Austen at university. We had read some together while we were home-educating and she then read the rest herself and loved them all. Unfortunately the tutor who had been allocated the course disliked JA heartily and so did most of the students! Poor Jane was in despair, hearing her adored books being torn to shreds every week!
        However, apparently the tutor was won over in the end, by Persuasion, ‘because it was so romantic’…

      2. Oh poor Jane! Both of the Janes!

        I think academia doesn’t do Jane justice. They are essentially novels of the heart and though there is much to discuss and write about, you can’t reduce them down to metaphors and themes. Thank goodness this tutor loved Persuasion though – anyone who doesn’t has no SOUL!

  12. BTW, I loved your summing up of the things we identify with and react to in her novels. DD read it over my shoulder and we both smiled and nodded. You’re so great I just have to forgive you!🙂

  13. Has any one figured out why you can read these novels over and over and over and never get sick of them? Sort of like visiting San Francisco…

  14. You did an excellent job of reviewing this one. I actually found this one in my library last year (a rare thing) and enjoyed it in much the same way — there were some a little too academic for me as well.🙂 If you’ve never read the Mysteries of Udolpho, I highly recommend a read of it before you return to Northanger Abbey. It will add much to your reading experience. I made my daughters read Udolpho over the summer (and there was initially much complaining), but now that they are reading Northanger Abbey, they understand why I had them do it, and are loving their first read of NA. Like you, I think Jane just gets richer with every reread!
    Thanks for the great review!

    1. Thanks Susan! I’m glad you have had the chance to read and benefit from this too! I have read some Ann Radcliffe at university (The Italian) but not The Mysteries of Udolpho – I will take your advice on that and make sure I read it before I reread NA. She really does get richer with every read, and she only gets better as you get older – quite a rarity!🙂

  15. Well this one is definitely going on the wishlist! Every year, always in the bleak midwinter, one of my Austens gets hauled out and reread…this has been going on for decades now. As Katie observed, the words are new every time. Judging by your review, this will be a treat.

    I also enjoyed “In the Garden with Jane Austen” by Kim Wilson which emphasises what any devoted reader of Jane Austen well knows: Jane loved the outdoors, loved nature and gardens. Kim Wilson takes us through her various novels, pointing out Jane’s observant eye and relating excerpts to Jane’s experiences. It was all very well researched, incredibly interesting and for this gardening reader, far too short at 114 pages.

    1. Hi Tui! So glad you’re going to be putting this one on the wishlist – it won’t disappoint, I promise! I love rereading Jane Austen – it’s as comforting as a cup of tea on a cold day. Every time something jumps out anew and it’s so rewarding.

      In the Garden with Jane Austen sounds wonderful – thank you for the recommendation! I love looking at the novels from different perspectives and I’ve never considered her use of the natural world before.

  16. And another TBR! You make this book sound wonderful. Actually, I’d love to read a good essay on Mansfield Park. That one. Hmm. I go back and forth on Fanny. I’ve never read a good criticism or commentary on it and it would probably help me to do so.
    Isn’t it funny to go from My Antonia (great book!) to Jane Austin? Both wonderful, but the women characters lead such different lives.

    1. It truly is! It has to be added to that list! Yes, Mansfield Park is hard for me to like too. I’ve read it a couple of times and each time..it didn’t sing out to me. Maybe I shall try again soon. There are some great essays on Mansfield Park in this collection, a lot of them attempting to redeem it from its reputation as dull – so you might find what you’re looking for within its pages!

      Yes! I know. I needed a break from the prairies, but I’m ready to go back now!

  17. You have reminded me that it has been far too long since I’ve had any ‘Jane’ in my life. Those little snippets of her stories made me feel all cosy, thank you for that!

    1. This is good news! Northanger Abbey is the only one I haven’t read more than once and I do need to reread it I think, to get more from it now I’m older and understand more what she was getting at.

  18. The Clueless one sounds fantastic! I love that movie with a shameful amount of love. :p But what is all this about Catherine and Henry Tilney? I like them! Did I completely misread the book? Tilney is by far my favorite of Jane Austen’s heroes. I like him! He’s not a satire, I legitimately like him.

    1. It’s a great essay, Jenny, you’d love it, though it’s a shame it’s so short. No one else seems to love Catherine and Henry I’m afraid – they find their romance unbelievable, which I have to agree with – Henry is far too clever for silly Catherine! But I need to reread as it’s been so long. I like Henry too – I just don’t think he should be with Catherine – they’re not suited!

  19. Ah! I hadn’t heard of it – I love Jane!

    I finished “Doctor Zhivago”, by the way – a terrific book – such a painful story. Thank you for recommending it, Rachel; it was too important to be ignorant of.

    1. Good! I hope you’ll read this one, Lisa!

      Wow, fantastic! I’m so glad you read Dr Zhivago and found it so wonderful – it’s a truly powerful book and one you sort of have to read, I think. I’m relieved you loved it. It was a pleasure to recommend and I’m grateful that you read it on my recommendation!

  20. I have read and loved Jane Austin’s books. For some reason I am not fond of some of the movies. The books are so much better. I will check out my local library for this book of essays. I know I will love it.

    1. I’m so glad you’re an Austen fan, Janet! The movies can never match up to the books – I enjoy some of them, while others annoy me as they don’t reflect my ideas of what the characters should be like. I actually prefer modernised versions, like Clueless, as they take the plot and make it something different rather than attempting to reproduce a ‘Regency’ novel and just end up making another sensationalised costume drama.

      I hope your library has this and that you enjoy it as much as me!!

  21. A library hold list sounds wonderful. I’m really envious but I know you will make the very best of it.
    What’s so lovely is that book blogs, and yours in particular, find the books for us when no library is available. It’s just a case of discovering the blog or blogs that match our own tastes.
    How else would I have heard of Susannah Carson’s book? Thank you, Rachel!

    1. Oh the library here is magnificent, Chrissy! The only problem is that there are so many people using the library that you can easily be over 100 in the hold queue for a book. So I can’t surrender my holds when they come in!

      Oh bless you, Chrissy! I am glad I can provide such a good service for you!🙂

  22. I’ve had this book in my to-read list since it came out. Your review is making me very impatient to read it!🙂

    Jane Austen is my favorite author to take under the covers when the world has gotten a bit off-balance, and when I started my new job at the beginning of January, I read three of her novels to relax in the evenings.

    1. You’ve got to get it off that shelf Kate! You’ll love it, especially as you’ve done some rereading recently.
      Oh me too. I’m so glad you got a job, by the way! And that Jane has been a good comfort to you at a time of stress. I hope it’s all going well!🙂

  23. Sounds fantastic, but what makes it sound so me is that there’s an essay on Clueless. I must have watched that film about 20 times and it never gets old, despite being (like Jane’s original work) very tied to the fashion of its time.

    1. Ha! I used to love that film but I haven’t seen it in years. It was a really interesting essay actually, and I think it’s important that modern adaptations are seen as ‘authentic’ because really, all the period dramas are filled with filler scenes and details that aren’t in the book too.

  24. I do like your review of this wonderful book. JA is so often criticized for not including political events and wars in her novels, but it is absolutely right that it would root them into a place and time whereas human nature never changes. I thought the JB Priestley essay was particularly good, too.

    1. Thank you Nicola. I’m glad you agree on that account – I get so fed up when I hear that same old argument about her ‘triviality’. War and current events are all there in the novels – they’re just not what she wanted to write about exclusively, and what’s wrong with that I ask?!

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