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A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great…

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane… (2009)

by Susannah Carson, Harold Bloom (Editor)

Other authors: Martin Amis (Contributor), Susanna Clarke (Contributor), Jay McInerney (Contributor), Fay Weldon (Contributor), Eudora Welty (Contributor)

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I enjoyed almost all of these essays, especially those by Susannah Carson herself. Kingsley Amis - what are you talking about? There were perhaps slightly too many included - I was flagging by the end. A couple of the writers who contributed referred to their own novels, which jarred. I wish the biographies of the contributors (which I belatedly discovered at the end) had been inserted before each essay, and I wish the date each essay was written had been given.

This book made me want to go and re-read all Austen's novels for the umpteenth time. ( )
  pgchuis | May 19, 2016 |
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: Why We Read Jane Austen edited by Susannah Carson, contains 33 essays by well-known writers about their love of Jane's novels. Austen was the seventh of eight children, lived only to the age of 42, and wrote at a time when published novels by women were still unusual. She created a "tiny world in which a canceled dinner party or a shower of rain is an important event, so that we could attend to and enjoy her subtle comedy". (J. B. Priestly). Yet somehow she has managed to approach the stature of Shakespeare, with her works read and taught and performed and turned into movies and plays over and over and over again. How can this be?

This book is not a smooth production. The editor might have considered thematic entries to link the essays, for example, or short overview introductions before each. However, the disjointed feel is far outweighed by the gems she has gathered for us. Eudora Welty, E.M. Forster, Martin Amis, A.S. Byatt, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf - it's an all-star line-up, with each giving his or her take on Why We Read Jane Austen. As I had hoped, it is filled with insights that had not occurred to me. For example, because she was a realist and wrote about what she knew, "she never attempted to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things she could never have heard." (W. Somerset Maugham). We never hear Darcy talking to Bingley, or Wickham, or Captain Wentworth speaking to Captain Harville, unless a woman is there to witness it. As another example, C.S. Lewis quotes four key passages from Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, and observes that, "All four heroines painfully, though with varying degrees of pain, discover that they have been making mistakes both about themselves and about the world in which they live. All of their data have to be reinterpreted. Indeed, considering the differences of their situations and characters. the similarity of the process in all four is strongly marked. All realize that the cause of the deception lies within . . ."

It has always struck me that readers of the six novels will put them in such varying orders from favorite to least. Several essayists find Mansfield Park (my least favorite) the most accomplished and interesting of the novels; others give the award to Emma, although seemingly all consider the "most delightful" to be Pride and Prejudice. Austen in fact was apparently concerned that P & P was too bright and sparkling, and that it may have needed more shadow. Several essayists comment on the different, "autumnal" feel to Persuasion, her last novel, which some see as signalling the transition to a different style that would have developed had she lived longer. Many comment on her comedic talents. She can be quite sharp, e.g. "a large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world." If you want to enjoy her witticisms apart from the novels, I recommend The Wicked Wit of Jane Austen, collected by Dominque Enright. As Amy Bloom says in her essay, "Jane Austen is often unkind, occasionally contemptuous, but almost never wrong."

The differences in perspective among these well-known authors is striking. Diane Johnson observes that, "Austen's great serious subject was the precariousness of the lives of women in early-nineteenth century England and, lacking other options, the urgent need for them to establish themselves by marriage." But Amy Bloom sees Jane Austen as "the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than 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." Kingsley Amis is a contrarian to all the Austen appreciation, writing of her moral "corruption" displayed in Mansfield Park, and has one of the best lines. He points out that in that book the ostensibly villainous Henry and Mary Crawford actually are "good fun", and that Edmund and Fanny, whom we are intended to admire, are "morally detestable" bores: "to invite Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Bertram round for the evening would not be lightly undertaken." Eva Brann finds Austen's work perfect in every way, and "the most felicitous of her perfections is her knowledge of the human heart." For Jay McInerney, it is our affinity for the female leads which is critical: "unless we are cranky scholars or celibate critics, we love and rank the novels according to our regard for the female principals." He finds his own "admiration shifting" among them at different points in time.

Virginia Woolf has perhaps the most thought-provoking essay. She goes back to the juvenalia, particularly the "astonishing and unchildish story Love and Freindship", written when Austen was 15, and wonders about something in it which "never merges with the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world." That laughter, the acute sense of our ridiculousness, is an undercurrent that manifests itself in later novels as well. At the same time, "what she offers {in the novels} is . . . composed of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the most endearing form of life." "Never did any novelist make more use of an impeccable sense of human values. It is against the disc of of an unerring heart, an unfailing good taste, and almost stern morality, that she shows up these deviations from kindness, truth and sincerity which are among the most delightful things in English literature." Woolf speculates on what Austen would have written had she lived longer, with her growing popularity. "She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, traveled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure." If only!

All of this inspired me to think about why, despite the dramatic differences in the breadth of their landscapes, Austen rises, for me, to the level of Shakespeare. What I say next could be applied to him, too: She is smarter than we are, and more insightful about human nature. She's wittier than we are, with a sharp, sometimes wicked, sense of humor. She writes with an almost unfathomable grace. We sense that so much lies within those crafted sentences that we find ourselves re-reading her books again and again. Just as the author-essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen obviously have. ( )
6 vote jnwelch | Mar 26, 2014 |
If you hate Jane Austen, this book will do little to change your mind. If you are indifferent to her, you may not be tempted further by these essays. If you love and admire her, this book will possibly bore you or irritate you after different writers either repeat what you already know or dislike what you like and like what you dislike.

However, if you are unsure about Austen or if you are curious to know what the fuss is all about, this book isn't a bad place to start.

This collection of essays that explain, praise, examine, accuse and otherwise give some kind of answer to the question implied in the title covers her 6 novels, her fragments, and her juvenilia do cover a range of opinion. Yes, most of it is positive and some of it feels a bit silly. Many of the essays were written long before the idea of the book came into being. Some are very scholarly and some are quite chatty. Some few are downright picky. Still, it does dig up quite a lot of thought about those 6 books as various authors talk about their favorite characters or novels, defend what they love most and excoriate what they despise. The novels are considered as single topics, as a group, and occasionally in comparison with more modern works.

My reaction to it was occasional surprise as someone pointed out an idea new to me, or bristly irritation as yet another author could not resist the lure to stick "It is a truth universally acknowledged" into the piece he or she wrote. On a few, I wondered why they bothered to write at all. Of course, I am an admirer of Jane Austen, so this book would do that.

But if you have read only a few of the novels, or perhaps only seen some movies based on the novels, this book could prove much more interesting and educational. It might well draw you deeper into the oddity. It might introduce you to the cult and offer you the Kool-aid. It will certainly open your eyes to, not only the novels and the woman we barely know who wrote them, but to the audience of Jane Austen and how she is regarded and has influenced our world. It could push you away or pull you in.

I already know I want to purchase a copy so I can go through with a highlighter and pen, to argue, to underline, and to explore, so that when I reread the books I can look for what these assorted authors claim is there.

I seriously doubt it will change my mind about Mansfield Park, however, but I'm going to give it a try. ( )
1 vote Murphy-Jacobs | Mar 30, 2013 |
In a piece called “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” Lionel Trilling addresses the two kinds of admiration for Jane Austen. He quotes none other Henry James, who admired Miss Austen, and who indeed had a moral and artistic affinity with her. Mr. James proclaimed that her reputation had exceeded her intrinsic interest and was unwarranted. He blames: “the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of magazines, which have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody’s dear Jane so infinitely to their material purpose.” In the more recent past, Dr. Leavis expresses his impatience with Miss Austen’s admirers while he honors her work. The same essential notion emerges in the work of Dr. Mudrick and D.W. Harding. Mudrick describes “a mere mass of cozy family adulation, self-glorif [ication] … and nostalgic latterday enshrinements of the gentle-hearted chronicler of Regency order.”
For some part of A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, an admirable collection edited by Susannah Carson, the issue of the “ownership” of Jane Austen – who has the right to admire her the most – rears its rather ridiculous head. The fact that there exist in parallel two main thrusts of Jane Austen love, the one where the charm of setting and sweetness of outcome rule, which I call the visceral, and the other dominated by academic research, and which deals with the more recondite, esoteric matters of exegesis and comparative aesthetics, which I will term the cerebral. For those of us who look for patterns, tricks, and subtle effects in our fiction, Jane Austen is a magnificent delight, over and over. And yet, how much less magnificent can Austen be to the devoted “lay” reader, who returns to her favorite novel, knowing that once again, the delights can be depended on? This is ridiculous, as I said. I can quote from a critic: “Long life, good health, and much prosperity to the reader who simply enjoys the narrative.” And I myself, have no qualms whatever to acknowledging a deep, visceral love for the Austen oeuvre, and it coexists quite nicely, thank you, with my delight in her subtler shadings, those lovely and beautifully-expressed barbs that skewer, and those ineffable expositions of psychology and human nature. I like “dear Jane” too.

So I guess, there you have it. True devotion to Jane Austen should be reserved (according to some) to those with the background, taste, credentials, and temperament to understand the literary merits, and shunned by the rest. Fat chance, and rightly so. I must admit to liking her work first and foremost for the ruthless candor of her observations of Regency hypocrisy and cant. At least they look and sound like hypocrisy and cant to us now. She strikes as far ahead of her times when portraying human motivation and real longing. The quality of her individuals never flags, never fails to ring exactly true, no matter the character’s state in life. Others enjoy Jane Austen – perhaps revere is a better word – for her portrayal of manners, her tight, quiet plots, her felicitous heroines, and her fulsome heroines. Why not? I like all those things, too, and admit to a good measure of reverence myself. Apparently I’m in decent company.

E.M. Forster famously opens an essay on Jane Austen, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen … She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed … The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he so freely ascribes to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said.”

E.M. Forster was no neophyte when it comes to judging a fiction’s quality, bit I read his words impressed by his visceral, rather than his cerebral, enjoyment. Isn’t this what Henry James, and professors Mudrick and Harding object to? These issues present perhaps the high water mark to the flood tide of her reputation. Implicit within the arguments is the acknowledged truth, a “truth universally acknowledged,” that Jane Austen, that peerless portraitist and storyteller, that purveyor of gentle manners cloaking a barbed, prickly sarcasm, ranks at the very top of artists writing English narrative. Yes, right there with Shakespeare. We find we can hardly blame critics and scholars for their apparent proprietary feelings toward her. We all feel that way.

I stared out wanting to review this collection. Ms. Carson, the editor, leads the festivities off with a fine, thought-provoking essay of her own. The work carries the subtitle “33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.” The collection does not lack for star power. Besides Forster’s need-I-say-hardly “imbecile” views, we get perception, insight, circumspection, and appreciation from Eudora Welty, Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, Lionel Trilling (twice), W. Somerset Maugham, Anna Quindlen, Louis Auchincloss, Janet Todd, Amy Heckerling, Margot Livesey, Jay McInerney, and Virginia Woolf. Contributions from lesser-known scribes add light and weight, as well.

We do have a mix here, between the cerebral and the visceral, and perhaps nowhere is the visceral more in evidence than Martin Amis’s wish for a twenty-page extension to Pride and Prejudice to get a detailed description of the Darcys’ wedding night, “with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, acquitting himself uncommonly well.” The cerebral, however, is everywhere. And I reserve the highest rank for Harold Bloom.

Mr. Bloom treasures "Persuasion" above all, as do I. He compares Anne Elliot to Rosalind of Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," saying they are the two heroines who carry almost omniscient understanding of their stories. He says of Anne and Rosalind, “Their poise cannot transcend perspectivizing completely, but Rosalind’s wit and Anne’s sensbiliy, both balanced and free of either excessive aggressivity or defensiveness, enable them to share more of their creators’ poise than we ever come to do.” Mr. Bloom goes on to cite others’ elegant points, and to make his own, about the deep understanding and unceasing and unspoken communication between Anne and Captain Wentworth. These points, and the truth that Anne outshines Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet in understanding, sympathy, and virtue, helped clarify for me the lovely features of this masterwork, to which Mr. Bloom ascribes “extraordinary aesthetic distinction.” He avers to feeling sad after each rereading, but I must say I never felt so tinged. The joy is, I admit, more alloyed than that accompanying "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice," but not at all because we value the heroine less. Appropriately enough, Mr. Bloom describes the novel as having a “canonical persuasiveness.”

We all read Jane Austen for different reasons. Whether you value her satisfying plots, her persuasive characters, or her sparkling wit, you will find 33 new perspectives, all from artists themselves, for reading and appreciating her work all over again. ( )
  LukeS | Sep 15, 2012 |
I happily admit to being a very keen reader of Austen’s works, so when I saw this book of Austen focused essays in a local charity shop I knew I wasn’t leaving without it. Pretending to my husband that this was a vital teaching resource, I happily handed over a sum of money that was much less than the R.R.P for this sturdy hardback.

Interestingly, my copy hails from America and the subtitle and cover image are different from the UK edition. The American version seems determined to stress the academic nature of the book so the subtitle states that the book contains “33 great writers on why we read Jane Austen” and the cover features a hint of a smiling reader holding a copy of what purports to be this book. The overall impression is elegant and tasteful. When I contrast this to the British version I am rather pleased to have my ‘special edition’. I find the subtitle more sensational and less accurate (“33 reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen”) and the scattered pictures of various colourfully depicted readers reminded me of the front cover of a child’s book of nursery tales.

The idea

Carson has gathered together 33 short pieces of writing on Austen and her works, purportedly in order to explore why so many people still read and enjoy Austen today. Some of these are critical essays, most are taken from introductions to editions of the stories but there is a great diversity of forms, including letters and even one recorded conversation. There are a range of voices, from modern writers to Austen’s contemporary critics, and a range of approaches, ranging from the biographical to the purely exclamatory.

The approach

I liked the idea of a range of writers and approaches but I was soon struck by the lack of clarity. The contents pages list the articles included, but there is no attempt to place them in any kind of context. I have generally found that, when reading non-fiction, it is helpful to be aware of the context of a piece of writing. Carson offers no help here at all. I had to search through the permissions acknowledgements page at the back of the book to confirm that some of the essays had originally been prefaces. The pieces are evidently not organised chronologically (though again, this is only clear from my knowledge of the contributors and reading the sketchy contributor biographies at the back of the book). I thought this was a shame as a chronological approach could potentially have shown some historical development in approaches to Austen.

However, the sheer eclecticism of the collection means that it is difficult to create a central strand. Carson’s approach, in so far as it exists, appears to be text based – essays which primarily focus on ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, are grouped together. This is not necessarily helpful as readers are unlikely to read these essays in the same linear way they might approach a story. I thought that a clearly signalled chronological or thematic approach might have been more helpful to readers.

The supporting materials

There is a brief foreword by Harold Bloom followed by a longer introduction by Carson. I felt the praise in both to be rather excessive, claiming that Austen's novels "inform our understanding of what it is to be human" among other magical qualities she apparently possessed. I admire Austen as a writer but I dislike the elevation of any writer to a mythical status and Bloom’s sweeping claim that “those who now read Austen ‘politically’ are not reading her at all” annoyed me with its implication that there are right and wrong positions to take regarding any writer. I have never been impressed by the notion that not everyone can ‘truly understand’ a writer’s particular genius. Instead, I am a strong believer in allowing everyone to reach their own (well reasoned and logically supported) positions in relation to texts and their authors. This is, however, a minor complaint in relation to these materials.

After establishing her own perspective, Carson briefly sketches each essayist's central position. I didn't find the order of this to be helpful. The links the editor makes are relevant, but I would have much preferred a chronological approach – if indeed such a summary is necessary at all. It is really a rather dull approach and a shame the editor didn't focus in on one or two key articles and her own response, but I believe that this is simply the way in which introductions to collections of essays generally work. I would not bother reading either the introduction or the foreword again but they do succeed in suggesting the multiplicity of approaches to Austen.

As I already noted previously, I thought it was disappointing that the essays were not helpfully contextualised. It would have been simple enough to write a brief paragraph above each essay noting who the author was and why the piece was written. The rather brief author biographies in the back of the book are alphabetical rather than following the structure of the essays in the book, which I found mildly irritating, and there was generally on clue regarding the context. E M Forster appears to be writing a
foreword for a collected works – specifically the 1923 Oxford edition edited by R W Chapman. Surely this would be worth mentioning? One essay is in the form of a dialogue but no account is made of its genesis. I found this lack of information increasingly frustrating and felt that this did reduce my enjoyment of the book.

The 33 pieces

As suits a book with such diverse contributors and approaches, my response to the essays was mixed. I did read them in order, simply because there seemed to be no good reason not to, but there is certainly no requirement to do so and it would be quite fun to dip in and out of these like a box of chocolates. (Again, having more details in the contents page would support this.) I will not discuss all the essays but will instead comment on a selection to give an idea of the quality and variety.

I was very pleased by first essay ‘Why We Read Jane Austen: Young Persons in Interesting Situations’. Interesting points were made about marriage in the nineteenth century, Austen's focus on moral character and use of landscape. The second essay, ‘The Radiance of Jane Austen’, by contrast, says nothing useful. It is simply a paean to Austen and I found it a little annoying. I suppose it is useful to give a flavour of the depth of feeling some people will develop for a writer, but my feeling is that if you’ve selected a book of essays on Austen, you’re probably either already quite keen on the writer or a diligent student. In neither case would reading gushing prose be helpful or, I would imagine, interesting.

‘Six Reasons to Read Jane Austen’ is, unsurprisingly, rather listlike and, again, little more than a homage. Later on, ‘Reading Northanger Abbey’ is an interesting examination of this slightly less typical novel by Susannah Carson. It is more academic in style than the preceding pieces – unsurprisingly as she is a PHD student. The link she made to Mr and Mrs Bennett confirmed my own thoughts, which is of course always gratifying, and identified a genuine problem at the heart of the novel. The essay gathers pace as Carson inverts her argument – could Austen have deliberately crafted this flaw in order to make a point? It is a worthwhile argument. I enjoyed Ian Watts’ piece ‘On Sense and Sensibility’ for similar reasons. It is true that I have more of an academic interest than a general reader might, but these are short and accessible pieces which I think a range of readers could find interesting and worthwhile reading.

There is a genuine variety of approaches. For instance, Lionel Trilling discusses student response to Austen as a way into establishing a humanist perspective. There was a very interesting point made by John Wiltshire considering why the films of Austen's novels are problematic. One writer briefly considers how Austen is presented and how this alienates some potential readers and even some critics. I did enjoy the diversity of approaches and thought it was a strength of the book that the contributors came from a range of backgrounds as they could offer different perspectives. One essay that surprised me was Martin Amis’: it seems out of place as it is forcefully critical of Austen's 'Mansfield Park', and this led me to wonder with renewed force what the organising force behind this collection was. It certainly didn’t seem like Amis was writing about ‘reasons to read Austen’ though I suppose he covers ‘why we read Austen’.

Inevitably, there is some overlap in terms of quotations used and comments made, but this is a minor feature of the text and did not bother me in the slightest. Occasionally, the writers referred to each others' essays, which I also found interesting as it helped to develop a sense of overall criticism and response to the novels. There were a few writers who conveyed an irksome sense of ‘knowing best’ (Eva Brann states that Austen's work does not have themes and is resistant to interpretation, which makes me wonder how on earth I manage to teach it!) but generally there was a feeling of discussion and a pleasant sense of sharing ideas.

Overall thoughts

While this collection is certainly not perfect, I did enjoy it and it is something I will definitely reread. (I even found a few ideas to share with my students so it turned out I wasn’t fibbing to my husband after all!) I liked the diversity of approaches and thought it would make a great gift for someone who is genuinely interested in Austen.

One significant omission is that there are no noticeable references to Austen’s juvenilia or to her unfinished novel ‘Sandition’. I do not find this omission surprising as Austen is widely known as the author of six competed novels and I did not know anything about her other works until I studied her at university. However, I did think it was a missed opportunity to bring these works more widely to the public’s attention.

All the essays are relatively short and they are all easy to follow and understand (with the exception of Harold Bloom’s essay on Persuasion, which I found rather dense and unrewarding). There is no glossary included as none is required. This is clearly a book aimed to a general reading audience rather than an academic reader.

Despite its flaws, I am very glad I found this and know I will eventually reread many of the essays. I would recommend it to anyone who has a basic familiarity with at least some of Austen’s books and a genuine interest in literature. In particular, I would recommend it to students studying Austen as a gentle introduction to literary criticism. ( )
1 vote brokenangelkisses | Jun 12, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Curiously enough, much of the best work in Carson’s book comes from academic critics. Ian Watt’s examination of Sense and Sensibility in the context of late-18th-century philosophy is a model of lit crit at its best; so is Lionel Trilling’s classic essay "Why We Read Jane Austen." In a dazzling analysis of some of the formal attributes of Austen’s novels, Eva Brann points out that “no symbols, metaphors, mere patterns, or levels of abstraction are to be found in them. Certainly there are revelations, correspondences, significances. But nothing is ever there for mere form’s sake or to suggest or stand for something else—which is why the novels so repel literary criticism."

» Add other authors (31 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carson, SusannahEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bloom, HaroldEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Amis, MartinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clarke, SusannaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McInerney, JayContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Weldon, FayContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Welty, EudoraContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Why are readers so fascinated by Jane Austen's novels? In essays culled from the last 100 years of criticism, great authors and literary critics of the past and present offer insights into her writing and her unique appeal to readers across generations.… (more)

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