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A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen

Edited by Susannah Carson, Random House, 2009, ISBN: 0-8129-8001-8

My only regret is that I did not receive my copy of this book in time to recommend it for your holiday gift list. Surely this is a book to provide hours of entertainment to any reader of Jane Austen, serious or frivolous, or, like me, a fan and collector of all things Austen. Fortunately, this book has received much press and blog coverage since it was first released in November, and it is not too late to put it on your gift list for upcoming occasions —or to gift yourself! I would certainly return to reread my favorite commentators over a cup of tea or possibly some steaming cappuccino. (Austen fans cross cultures.) I returned with delight to Michael Amis’s article on Pride and Prejudice which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1999. He was the first one I recall pointing out “Austen’s celebration of ‘the amorous effects of brass’: that is, of money, and old money, too.” Americans know how sexy that can be—think of Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby chasing his Daisy and our fascination with the lives of the Kennedy clan. Amis’s essay examines how Austen “makes Mrs. Bennets of us all.”


A number of the collected works has been seen in print before. In fact, one of my GCR mugs, which Margo Goia designed to raise funds for our GCR programs, has a sentence from E.M. Forster: “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” This 1993 mug now holds my cup of tea; the full essay can be savored in this collection. My 1995 mug includes a statement by Virginia Woolf: “Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe.” This quotation appears midway in an essay written after a “pilgrimage to Winchester Cathedral” and subsequent reflection on “the affection that Austen and her work inspire.” Woolf focuses on the how and why of this personal investment in Austen—and I recommend this selection to you. Other essays also can be read elsewhere, but here are treasures ready to discover. Read how Lionel Trilling, in interviewing students for his prospective seminar on Jane Austen, discovered their passion felt for no other class—“something they wanted from Jane Austen.” Writer Eudora Welty’s essay focuses on Austen’s sparking vitality; critic Ian Watt examines the cultural background of Austen’s language. Fay Weldon’s book, Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen, written while adapting the 1985 BBC Pride and Prejudice (with Elizabeth Garvie), is excerpted here. I recommend the full book, but here is a letter sure to delight.

Quite a few pieces were commissioned for this collection; let me mention just three. Susanna Clarke points out important differences in women’s choices today, but we can still understand how marriage then became a career choice—“a parson’s wife (Elinor, Fanny and Catherine), a landowner’s wife (Elizabeth and Emma), or a ship’s captain’s wife (Anne).” You will love the article by Amy Heckerling which explains how she came to write Clueless for teens. Benjamin Nugent explains why today’s adolescents need to read Austen: “to open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed . . . it can also feel like waking up.” Buy this book and send it to your favorite high school English teacher!

-Natalie Goldberg, Letter from Chicago, Winter 2010