Book Review: 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen. 
Edited by Susannah Carson.

Another bargain find at Sydney, Central Station’s Basement Books (I believe for $4.95 although this hardback has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while and I can hardly remember).  This is a collection of 33 essays from a range of academic names, film directors and even fiction writers and psychologists about their own personal journeys with Jane Austen.  Featuring the instantly recognisable names of C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Amy Heckerling and J. B. Priestley it’s an absolute gem.

(Isn’t the dust jacket adorable!)

Combining the deeply thoughtful with the prosaic, the old-school previously published with new original writings, and using such a diversified number of perspectives this book captures perfectly the different Janeites across the world.  With exciting titles such as: “The Nerds of Pride and Prejudice” and “Pride and Prejudice and the Mysteries of Life” it’s easy to see how any fan of the Bennet’s can get caught up and absorbed right in. 

The observations provided about P&P are profound, funny and beautiful.  Benjamin Nugent, taking some sort of a shine to Mary Bennet, spends his entire four pages worth discussing her character and nerdy capabilities:  “And yet she can’t earn Elizabeth’s respect, because Elizabeth, herself so charmingly sneaky in conversation, finds Mary’s awkwardness insufferable.  In other words, Mary’s a nerd, one of the earliest examples of a nerd in a famous work of literature.”

While the more literary-criticism-heavy ends of the essays get a bit steep and dry (particularly when they revolve around Mansfield Park), the majority are an absolute joy.  The stand out of the book is most definitely Brian Southam’s “A Life Among The Manuscripts: Following in the Steps of Dr. Chapman” in which Southam looks at the moment when his study of Jane Austen was “transformed into a living and lifelong devotion.”  The lucky man was to make a transcription of the entire manuscript, (an early work- Love and Freindship included) written in Jane’s own hand.  He details his journey with her own work, that she touched and laboured over, with an intense fervour that turns into a factual meandering about the other manuscripts which exist and the legal, emotional and patriotic arguments surrounding them.

An outstanding mention also has to go to Janet Todd, whose “Why I Like Jane Austen” piece is not only insightful, amusing and a really easy read, but also includes gems of lines such as: “Jane Austen seems the writer nearest to a composer of classical music, her novels well-wrought symphonies; turbulent depths coexist with ordered surfaces and the ratio of the expected to the unexpected feels just as it should” (really, is there any better description of Austen’s art?) and “Austen permits this intimacy to us all in an inimitable way, so that we believe we are peculiarly close to her as a person and would somehow be appreciated by her were we to know her”.  What can I say, Todd knows her stuff.

Another fantastic Pride and Prejudice focussed essay is from Martin Amis, whose “Force of Love: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen” who mentions exactly what is is about Mr. Collins that we all dislike (his being “pitiful and creepy”) as well as looking at what Jane does and does not mention, the sociability of the book and even his preference “a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals”, as at the end of the day we spend the entire book desperately wishing for Darcy and Lizzy to sort it out and get together. Jane Austen, he says, “makes Mrs. Bennets of us all”.

If you want to ratify your own thoughts on Jane, as well as learn some new points of view and even think about techniques you hadn’t noticed Austen subtly weaving through her novels this is a great read.  While definitely for a more seasoned Janeite, and preferably one with a moderately weighty knowledge on each of the novels (I recommend reading each novel, and then reading the essays that relate to each for full effect), there is a refined enjoyment that this collection of perspectives offers.  I would also suggest using several of the essays as supplementary material for students studying Jane Austen, as I think it’s an easy approach to the normal dry literary criticism.

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