Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review: A Truth Universally Acknowleged

Title A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen
Author Susannah Carson
Rating ****
Tags jane austen, essays, essay collection 

The book is a collection of essays by academics and authors on Jane Austen. Included are such famous names as Virginia Woolf, Harold Bloom, Lionel Trilling, A. S. Byatt, J.B. Priestley, Anna Quindlen, and more.

It is always hard to review a collection of essays, as they tend to be uneven, either in quality or in their level of interest for any particular reader. Editor Carson, however, has from over 100 years worth of material - all the essays seem to be 20th century or later. It is a little hard to tell the exact time span, as nowhere is the date of the original publication given for each essay, and that is a feature I would have appreciated. Editor Susannah Carson chose the essays well... one almost has the sense of an ongoing conversation about Austen by a group of lively dinner guests. The essayists are pretty much all Janeites. Some of them mention common criticisms of Austen, but mostly to refute them. Essays that are about a specific one of the six novels tend to be clustered together.

Not all of the essays are about her works. Trilling has an essay on teaching a seminar on Austen that he planned to limit to 20 students, but 140 showed up. He managed to whittle the class down to 40, but was interested in the students' reactions to Austen and why they were so anxious to get into the course.

The essays don't all agree with each other. In one instance, an essay is followed by another that says the exact opposite about the same two characters, which turns our dinner conversation into a debate. Others are quite unique; for example, the one by Amy Heckerling is about her turning Austen's novel Emma into the movie Clueless.

I must confess that of the six novels I've read only Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and I've seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility. Yet I now feel I understand Jane Austen and her appeal to a widely diverse audience. Perhaps most surprising is the number of male Janeites, as in my mind she was something of an ancestress to chick lit. It would be a shame if she does get pigeon holed that way in the future.

The essays have given me a desire to read the novels I haven't yet read, but also to read some of her unpublished works, especially her satirical History of England, written when she was fifteen. Here's a sample, from the piece about Henry VIII:

"Nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general."

You may now call me a Janeite.



Foreword – Bloom, Harold
Publication Random House (2009), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1400068053 / 9781400068050

Posted via web from reannon's posterous

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