Last weekend, my reading plans were thwarted by a less-than-stellar book, and my thoughts turned to finishing something that had sat on the table, partly read, for a few months. The book was A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why we Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. I first heard of this book from Rachel at Booksnob (her excellent review is here). I’m very pleased to have this book in my library, because it goes so well with any Austen novel (sort of like coffee and chocolate, mmmm ….)
So today, by way of a review, I’ll share more of this book with you …
As the title implies, this book is a collection of essays about Jane Austen’s work, written by notable writers from Virginia Woolf to Lionel Trilling to Amy Bloom. Their tone ranges from academic to casual. Each essay conveys a deep and abiding respect, even love, for Jane Austen. The essays were not written specifically for this book; rather, they were written for a specific purpose in the writer’s career. Because of this, there are some repetitive themes and elements. Several writers summarized Austen’s upbringing, her family, and her all-too-short life. More than one expressed surprise that Austen’s work never mentioned significant current events like the Napoleonic wars. Other essayists defended her in this regard. It was interesting, and sometimes humorous, to see how each author approached their task. One essay began with the phrase, “A truth universally acknowledged,” while another decried this cliché.
Some of the essays discussed Austen’s entire body of work, while others focused on specific novels. I began reading this book concurrent with a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and found those specific essays enhanced my reading experience. Over the next several weeks I read an essay here and there, and then sat down to finish the book over a long weekend. I do not recommend the latter approach. The essays are so different from one to the next, that sequential reading is difficult to digest. The book did, however, reinforce my intent to re-read Austen’s novels. The collection is best as a companion read, and I will take it off the shelf each time I read one of Austen’s books.
I’ll close with a paragraph from Janet Todd’s essay, “Why I Like Jane Austen,” which described better than any other my own reasons for enjoying the divine Jane:
Jane Austen seems to the writer nearest to a composer of classical music, her novels well-wrought symphonies; turbulent depths coexist with ordered surfaces and the ration of the expected to the unexpected feels just as it should. Each time I read her — and she is one of the few novelists who can be read and reread — I know I have not exhausted the books; something has again escaped me, as it does from a concert performance of a complex musical piece. It was beautiful, but did I listen as closely as I should? Like Lyme in Persuasion, Jane Austen’s books “must be visited, and visited again.”