In A Truth Universally Acknowledged, editor Susannah Carson collects thirty-three short essays on Jane Austen. In her introduction, Carson notes that each “of these essayists has taken a shot at defining and explaining Austen’s place both in the literary canon and in the cultural imagination.” And while there’s no mention of Austen’s recent tangles with zombies and sea monsters, the collection does cover quite a route of the cultural imagination that Carson promises. How could it not? There are short (and longish) essays from E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Martin Amis, and C.S. Lewis, all proffering different reasons why Austen rules. Contemporary writer Susanna Clarke scolds those of us who might mistake film and TV adaptations as authentic representations of the lady’s work: “Austen wasn’t a visual writer,” Clarke writes, ” Her landscapes are emotional and moral–what we would call psychological.” Harold Bloom goes as far as to suggest that, “Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us.” Bloom’s usual Oedipal anxiety manifests itself in a more palatable line: “Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.” (Never fear, Bloom gets some axe-grinding in as well: “Those who read Austen ‘politically’ now are not reading her at all.” Thank you again, oh great master critic, for telling us how to read our books). Benjamin Nugent gets pragmatic, seeing Pride and Prejudice as something of a self-help book: “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.” One of our favorite writers, Eudora Welty, writes a loving appreciation of the marvel of just how Austen constructed the complex ironies of her works: “Each novel is a formidable engine of strategy.” Rebecca Mead’s “Six Reasons to Read Jane Austen” is both funny and convincing. Reason four: “Because we are made to in school.” Mead’s little essay would be a worthy primer for any high school senior dreading wading into Pride and Prejudice. The great American critic Lionel Trilling points out, as those high schoolers know, that Pride and Prejudice “is the one novel in the canon that ‘everybody’ reads.” He wants you to know that of “Jane Austen’s six great novels, Emma is surely the one that is most fully representative of its author.” He makes a good case for this argument as well, comparing it to the “difficult” books of Proust, Joyce, and Kafka–company that we don’t always associate with Austen. Indeed, many of the essays here focus on Austen’s lesser-read volumes–Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma–and to a positive end: these essayists will make you want to read these books. And isn’t that what real literary criticism should aim to do anyway–make the reader read the book herself, think critically about it herself? While Austen is hardly in need of a revival, A Truth Universally Acknowledged does a lovely job of balancing academic criticism with a popular appeal. Like Austen’s own work, it tempers social critique with sharp humor. A Truth will, of course, appeal mostly to Austen fans (many of whom will surely find it indispensable), but it’s also the sort of volume that will find a place in the hearts of those who simply love to read great writers writing about great writers. Recommended.
A Truth Universally Acknowledged is new in hardback this month from Random House.