Why We Read Jane Austen

The first challenge you face when writing about Pride and Prejudice is to get through your first sentences without saying, “it is a truth universally acknowledged…”

—–  Martin Amis

Isn’t it true that these words from the clever and satirical opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice [1] have been so overused that they have sadly become a cliché in our contemporary language, together with ‘zombies’ and ‘vampires’?

So what did I expect from a book entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged:  33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen?

I admit, at first I thought it was a literary version of those lifetime achievement award presentations, where the honoree is showered with superfluous speeches by his/her peers, over champagne and frivolous dinner, something which Jane Austen herself would abhor.

I found out soon enough that between the modest and classic looking covers, Susannah Carson, the editor of the volume, had gathered the essays of 33 writers, not toasts or roasts, but detailed biographical notes, thoughtful musings, heartfelt admiration and in-depth analysis of Austen characters and works.  It is a collection of articles stemming from a balanced fusion of sense and sensibility, something that Austen herself would have approved.

Included are literary figures from the late 19th to 20th centuries like E. M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, C. S. Lewis, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.  Contemporary contributors include writers, academics, Austen historian, and screenwriters.  There are views from Harold Bloom, Lionel Trilling, Janet Todd, Anna Quindlen, A. S. Byatt, Amy Bloom, to name a few.  All of them point to Austen’s inimitable humor, incisive observations of human nature and unwavering moral stance that make her works still relevant two hundred years later today.

The following are some samples from this smorgasboard of Austen delights.

Harold Bloom, writing the preface, concludes with these lines:

We read Austen because she 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 both as readers and as human beings.

Anna Quindlen, defending the subject matter in Austen’s works being mainly about the family (it’s a pity that she even needs to do this):

…[Austen was] a writer who believed the clash of personalities was as meaningful as—perhaps more meaningful than—the clash of sabers.  For those of us who suspect that all the mysteries of life are contained in the microcosm of the family, that personal relationships prefigure all else, the work of Jane Austen is the Rosetta stone of literature.

Austen once referred her own writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”  In response, screenwriter and director Amy Heckerling, who has adapted Emma into the movie ‘Clueless’, compares Austen’s writing to a Vermeer painting:

“Sometimes the finest brushes paint the biggest truths.”

James Collins, a writer and editor, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, shares a very personal view:

I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others… Reading Austen I sometimes feel as if my morals are a wobbly figurine that her hand reaches out and steadies.

But she is not all didactic and stern… far from it.  Jane Austen has long been celebrated for her animated humour and witty ironies, the essence of her writing.  I love this analogy that Collins uses:

Her ironies swirl and drop like the cast of a fly fisherman. This rhythmic motion seems to me ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance.

Demonstrating the relevance of her satires for today, Benjamin Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, discusses the nerds in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennett and Mr. Collins, and why they miss out on life.

If you read sci-fi novels, you’ll generally read about worlds in which scientists and the technologies they create drive the plot; if you read Austen, you’ll read about a world in which technology means nothing and the triumphs and failures of conversational agility drive everything.

His advice for modern day nerds:

Young nerds should read Austen because she’ll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed.  Like almost all worthwhile adolescent experience, it can be depressing, but it can also feel like waking up.

It takes a sharp ear and intelligence to be a good humorist, and Austen shows that she has what it takes to be one at an early age.  About her prodigious talent, Virginia Woolf praises her first work, the novella Love and Friendship, written when Austen was only 15:

an astonishing and unchildish story… Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense–Love and Friendship is all that…  The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.

Indeed, as editor Susannah Carson has stated, any hint of ‘romance’ in her novels is merely the irony of it. About the seemingly unconvincing romantic plot in Northanger Abbey, Carson asserts:

What if Austen actually intended the romance plot to be unconvincing?  … It is probable… that Austen intended the failure of the romance plot, not to sabotage her own work, but to make a point about romance plots in general… that [they] are inherently artificial.

That Northanger Abbey is a satire on the gothic novel has long been noted.  Other writers also stress that Austen should not be labelled as a ‘romance writer’ because of the satirical styling behind her writing.  W. Somerset Maugham keenly observes:  “She had too much common sense and too sprightly a humor to be romantic.”

In his essay ‘Beautiful Mind’, writer Jay McInerney bravely admits that: “If my actual romantic life has sometimes been influenced by superficial considerations, as an Austen reader the basis of my affections has been almost entirely cerebral.

Amy Bloom sums it up succinctly about this common confusion about romance and love:

Jane Austen is, for me, the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than in romance, and who cares more for the private than the public. She understands that men and women have to grow up in order to deserve and achieve great love, that some suffering is necessary (that mewling about it in your memoir or on a talk show will not help at all), and that people who mistake the desirable object for the one necessary and essential love will get what they deserve.

To master such a distinction could well be one of the main reasons why we read Jane Austen.

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A Truth Universally Acknowledged:  33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson, published by Random House, NY, 2009, 295 pages.

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[1] The first line of Pride and Prejudice goes like this: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Photos Sources: Book cover randomhouse.com, Jane Austen Portrait tvo.org, Jane Austen Centre, Bath, taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Dec. 07.

This article has recently been published in the current Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine. Click to go there for other interesting articles on Jane and the Regency world.

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Related Posts you might enjoy:

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “Why We Read Jane Austen”

  1. Lovely Arti. You have selected some of the best quotes from the book. I thought that this collection was thoughtful and engaging. This is a book to be savored and cherished, read and re-read for years to come. Delightful.

    Cheers, LA

    Laurel Ann,

    I have you to thank, for I first learned about this book on your blog Austenprose. Thanks for stopping by.

    Arti

    Like

  2. Oh Arti! you have saddled me with guilt today – this has been on my TBR much too long [with thanks to Laurel Ann! – not that I haven’t read it, but that it is there!]] – I have read a few of the essays but see that all must be read to appreciate the whole. Tell me, does Carson say in her intro why 33 writers?
    Thank you as always for your review…
    Deb

    Janeite Deb,

    There isn’t any mention why 33, but there’s an interesting interview of Susannah Carson on Jane Austen World by Vic. In there she revealed some of her criteria for the selections. Although as a single compilation, the essays are so varied, reflecting each contributor’s own take on Austen, that they make an interesting read on their own. I need to point out though that it may be a resource that would appeal more to those who are relatively familiar with Austen’s works due to the numerous references on the characters and plots.

    Arti

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  3. This sounds really good! I like that there are selections from older writers as well as contemporary ones. Those quotations are really good too; I don’t normally like Bloom, but his argument here is great. I do think that Austen taught us a lot of what we know about novels, which is why she seems so absolutely natural.

    Dorothy,

    Yes, I think you’ll enjoy this volume. Susannah Carson is a Ph.D candidate at Yale, majoring in French. She got her M. Phil from the Sorbonne, Paris. Herself is one interesting character to note, described as ‘a woman of the world’ by her interviewer. You might enjoy reading her interview on Jane Austen World.

    Arti

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  4. Arti,
    this was a wonderful read. You’ve done the book more than justice; I have faith you could compile your own book on Austen and many more.

    I have a “set” of Austen’s novels, in a decorated cardboard box, each novel with its cover done in a different shade of color and a paisley pattern, they’re nearly small as a paperback, not quite, and in hardcover. My Gran gave it to me when I was 13.

    Having read this, I shall be dashing to our bookshelves by the fireplace and finding this set…not sure which one to begin re-reading though for some reason I always liked “Sense and Sensibility.”

    and then, because you mentioned her, too, I might pick up something of Amy Bloom’s.

    I’m a bit all over the place with my reading lately and you have given me some direction – thanks!

    oh,

    Thanks for your kind words… I’m sure writing about a compilation is much much easier than doing one. And what a treasure you had received from your Gran. Reading JA’s novels is a perennial habit of mine. They never lose their appeal for me. But as for which one I re-read, that depends on the circumstance. Usually whenever there’s a new film adaptation comes out, I’d re-read the book before seeing it, like right now it’s Emma. Masterpiece is showing the recent BBC production later this month.

    As for Amy Bloom, she just has a new collection of short stories published. You might like to check that out… Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

    Arti

    Like

  5. Arti,

    For the first time, the amazement of that initial sentence in Pride and Prejudice caught my attention today.

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” points directly to one of the great realities of our time: the apparent absence of universal truth and, in fact, a prejudice against the thought of universal truth.

    In an age of almost absolute moral and cultural relativism, I wonder if part of the on-going interest in Austen isn’t grounded in a fascination with a world where the possibility of universal truth was acknowledged – even on the most humorous and entirely mundane levels, such as matrimonial habits.

    Interesting to think about, for sure. There are other things in the review that really catch me – I have a couple of nerds I’d like to point to Nugent’s essay!

    Linda,

    You see how relevant JA is for today… nerds and pluralists alike! I’ve particularly enjoyed the contemporary takes compiled in this book. Nugent’s is no doubt something fresh. But I’m surprised to read about Collins’ unabashed admission about the need for a moral anchor for himself, and society on the whole. Isn’t it utterly ironic that relativism is the universal norm nowadays? You have a good point about the reason for JA’s appeal to the modern reader.

    Arti

    Like

  6. I think I’ve always read Austen as novels, enjoying her wit and genius without analysis. These quotes makes me want to reread with others’ insights.

    nikkipolani,

    They sure can help us enjoy the books even more… even though you may not agree with their every take.

    Arti

    Like

  7. What a thorough and well developed review! I just decided how I’ll spend my Christmas gift card at our independent book store. Thank you.

    The quotes from the writer to nerds were insightful. Just think, you could have every Austen reader explain why she touches them, and they might be different. The last in your post, Amy Bloom’s, especially resonated with me.

    That Austen managed all this as a rare voice in the Age of Empire is what makes all these listed traits so marvelous. When I reread P & P for the umpteenth time, it’s all these things layered together, through the distant window of time yet still universally true, that astonishes me.

    I do love reading famous authors’ writings on other authors. I have a collection of short stories with essays like that, which have been very helpful and revelatory, like DH Lawrence on Poe, or Guy de Maupessant on writing just before the actual story The String, for instance.

    Ruth,

    I think JA’s genius lies in the fact that she had written the early versions of S & S and P & P all before she was 25. You’re right, just astonishing, considering her young age, parochial living conditions, and the then social limitations as a female… a ‘rare voice’ indeed, and still speaking today!

    Arti

    Like

  8. By the way, I hope your “neighbor” Vancouver gets snow for the Olympics!

    Ruth, I’m afraid that’s our national dream for the next few weeks indeed.

    Like

  9. What a wonderful compilation–I don’t doubt that you had fun with it, loving Austen as you do! She always reminds me of the etchings done on slim pieces of whalebone (there’s a word for it, but it’s gone). Very fine, indeed.
    Now I want to run out & snap up a copy of Northanger Abbey–the only Austen I’ve yet to read. It’s not fair to leave one out, is it?

    ds,

    That’s scrimshaw … and that’s a good analogy. Hey, after you’ve finished reading all JA’s six novels, you’re welcome to do a survey I have on my sidebar, cast your vote on which heroine from her works you think Jane was most like. Click on the results if you’re curious, although they come as no surprise.

    Arti

    Like

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