A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen
Why do we read Jane Austen? Beyond the books themselves, films and BBC miniseries adapted from classics like Pride and Prejudice draw large audiences. Are we drawn in by Austen's characters, delightful yet no-nonsense writing style, or detailed unveiling of social dynamics? Maybe it's the happy endings that keep us coming back. Or is it the sheer joy in her snarkiness, snugly couched in proper language?
Anyone who enjoys Austen's work, from the casual reader on to the obsessed "Janeite" could likely come up with her own answer. In A Truth Universally Acknowledged, editor Susannah Carson gathers a tumult of theories and stories about the love of all things Jane. Only ten of the thirty-three essays appear to be penned specifically for this volume, including a thoughtful personal essay by Margot Livesey, a well contextualized and nicely written John Wiltshire piece exploring the film adaptation issue, and a shallow lark by Amy Heckerling (known for her Emma-inspired film Clueless). The rest is re-purposed: for example, Amy Bloom's accessible, friendly introduction to a 1992 edition of Persuasion; E. M. Forster's droll, well-known 1936 essay "Jane Austen: The Six Novels;" and an entertaining but predictably sexist Martin Amis piece.
The book kicks off with a foreword by Harold Bloom. Like a number of writers included in this volume, it's possible he was included mainly to pump up the star power of Carson's contributor list (Jay McInerney, anyone?) Bloom is one of the world's foremost literary critics; featuring him first, however, implies that his angle is one Carson cherishes. He uses the opportunity to declaim—with no proof whatsoever—that "Austen has no more a political or social agenda than she has a religious one... Those who now read Austin 'politically' are not reading her at all." Such pompous and dismissive declarations, handed down from on high by a guy, completely ignore how the personal really is political.
Austen's work is intimate, feminine, and intensely personal. She reveals the stark realities of being a woman in Regency England, where marriage carried utmost importance. Marry wrong or get caught shacking up, and you might end up exiled from all those you previously socialized with, including your family. The Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice must marry appropriate gentlemen not just to secure their own futures, but so that their parents won't be kicked out of their home. Girls who fall for rakish rogues, like Marianne in Sense and Sensibility or Lydia in Pride and Prejudice threaten their own happiness and the potential for their sisters to marry. Anna Quindlen's essay on gender in Austen, included in the book, examine some of these issues.
The primary problem with A Truth... lies not in the writing, but the editing. Shoehorning thirty-three essays between two covers does not an effective anthology make. The book could have used more direction, more selectivity, and a stronger guiding hand. If you're enough of an obsessive "Janeite" to fully comprehend all the essays included here, chances are you've already read many of them. If not, you may feel lost in some chapters and bored by others. A starry-eyed love of Austen often trips up many writers; reading A Truth... sometimes feels like perusing a fanzine written by grad students. The editor makes no bones about her own fan-girl status. "Opening the cover to this volume," she opines on her work, "is like opening a door to all the clamorous merriment of a book club meeting." Clamorous merriment? She even rocks a saucy yet precious Elizabeth Bennet-esque hairdo in her author photo.
Still, A Truth Universally Acknowledged may inspire the reader to examine more closely Austen's work—and the many novels and films it has inspired. It would make a great gift for the Janeite in one's life, and if we read with great patience, the rest of us may come to value its wide range of essays.