I stumbled over this book during a visit to Mr B’s Emporium in Bath (magical place!) and have been saving it ever since for my next Austen in August. I had never heard of it but was instantly smitten with the premise. The book’s subtitle is “33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen”. My only complaint might be that surely there could be more. A Truth Universally Acknowledged draws together essays from writers both old and new, with contributors as diverse as E.M. Forster and Amy Heckerling. For an Austen fan, this is a rare treat.
As a disclaimer, this is a book very much for those who like to read Jane Austen. Other than Amy Heckerling’s fabulous account of how she came to adapt Emma into Clueless, there are few mentions of the film adaptations and the subject matter tends to concentrate very closely on the original texts. Carson has grouped the essays more or less thematically, so we get a few in a row on one novel and then on the next and so on. Yet while I was expecting Pride and Prejudice to overshadow all of the other books, Carson manages to keep the coverage pleasantly even.
I found this book utterly fascinating in how it captures so many of the famous quotations about Austen as a writer in one place. We have Kingsley Amis’ remark that the prospect of dinner with Mr and Mrs Edmund Bertram would be quite a chore, and also C.S. Lewis’ comment that Fanny Price is a Brontë heroine in an Austen situation. There are many others. It was interesting to see how opinions on Austen shifted over time – she is a different figure as seen through the eyes of E.M. Forster or Virginia Woolf compared to the more modern contributors such as Benjamin Nugent. We have rewritten Austen repeatedly yet the process has been so gradual that it only becomes clear with collections such as these.
Many of the authors commented on Austen’s interest in social mobility. Mr Darcy is explicitly stated to be a good master and landlord and so he retains his estate. The Elliots of Kellynch are less responsible and so they have to decamp to Bath while the noveau riche of the Admiral and Mrs Croft take over. Anne Elliot cringes that this means that conditions will improve for the Kellynch tenants. All across Austen’s fiction, the aristocracy are in a state of slow decay. The television adaptations which have become so ubiquitous over the past twenty years are celebrating a world that Austen’s writing was seeking to challenge. This is one of the many reasons that I will always prefer the books.
Like What Matters in Jane Austen?, this book is clearly marketed to an audience of fans rather than academics. However, I can see that readers with some kind of English Literature background are likely to find it more enjoyable. Brian Southam’s essay on the text edition wrangling was worthy of something out of A S Byatt’s Possession – fascinating for me but perhaps not something that the casual Austenophile would find entertaining. I also had to read Lionel Trilling’s essay very slowly and even parts of it out loud to completely follow it. However, despite the density, it all paid off in the final paragraph which was sublime.
There is a good deal of disagreement between the writers; W. Somerset Maugham contents that Austen was beautiful while Martin Amis calls her plan, etc, etc. Yet despite all of this, this cacophony of opinion is united in one thing – reading Austen is an interesting thing to do. I absolutely loved this book. Forever afraid of being a Book Snob, I am always slightly shame-faced when I read something quite so unashamedly literary but I devoured the whole book in under a week. It was brilliant to read such a diverse range of analyses on Austen’s craft as a writer.
There is no avoiding the fact that this is not a light read. Some of the essays are more engaging than others. However, I felt that every single one brought me a fresh point of view on Austen and on her place within the canon of English literature. My favourite essay though was perhaps that of Rebecca Mead, who provided six reasons why we read Jane Austen (the first of which was ‘Because We Can’t Ask Her To Dinner Even Though We’d Like To’) and which closed with the killer line ‘Why do we read Jane Austen? Because Jane Austen read Jane Austen and knew it was as close to perfection as any of us could hope for.’ Definitely my favourite non-fiction read of this year’s Austen in August, I think that this is a book I will be revisiting for years to come.
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Published by Penguin on January 1st 1970
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