30th Jun 2010
A Truth Universally Acknowledged edited by Susannah Carson
Dear reader, I have a confession to make that may cause hardcore Austen fans to howl in fury or perhaps blush and rapidly fan themselves. Once upon a time, I disliked Jane Austen. In fact, I despised her. As an eager reader of Adrian Mole’s diaries, I cheered when during his first –and last – day working at the local library, my anti-hero transfers the Austens from the Classics section to the Romance section. When fellow students at my female-dominated university—all Janeites to a woman—discussed their literary heroine, I’d take great pleasure, while hugging a dog-eared Bukowski or Camus, in quoting poet Robert Frost, who maintained that Austen should be dug up and hit over the skull with her own shin-bone.
So what changed? Older and wiser but ill in bed, I was handed Pride and Prejudice and, too sick to complain, managed to get past the first page, the second, the third. At four in the morning, I was galloping to the end in what Martin Amis in his contribution to this wide and varied essay collection describes as a ‘tizzy of zealous suspense.’ I was now a friend of Jane, although perhaps not quite as devoted as some. A Truth Universally Acknowledged’s editor, Susannah Carson, states in her introduction:
“…our favourite Austen novels haunt us through our entire lives, inform our understanding if what it is to be human, and in the end fuse so wholly with our thoughts and feelings that it would be difficult to imagine the sorts of people we might have become had we never encountered them.”
Steady on, old girl. Yet I can’t mock this kind of fervour too much because if you were fool enough to ask, I could quite easily gush about the transformative effect of say Proust or Tolstoy—although hopefully in a less purple manner.
Despite my cooler appraisal of our Jane’s genius, I enjoyed this book of essays which contains enough interesting nuggets to arrest all forms and varieties of Austen admirers. As well as Martin Amis, the 33 contributors include Harold Bloom, E.M. Forster, Diane Johnson and Welsh academic, Janet Todd, who provides an excellent analysis of Austen’s ‘common sense’ view of the world.
Among my particular favourites was Amy Heckerling’s discussion of transporting characters from Emma to mid-90s Beverly Hills for her film, Clueless. Another was Benjamin Nugent’s essay where he claims Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice as the first recorded description of a ‘nerd’. As I read Nugent’s ruthless dissection of poor Mary’s character, I thought of someone I met recently who is so like her. And it’s this timeless universality, Austen’s razor-sharp but lightly worn analysis of human character, that encourages fans like me and each of the 33 essayists to read and re-read while, it must be said, encouraging more ardent acolytes to watch the Sunday night telly adaptations wearing full Regency-era gear. But as sage Jane once wisely wrote: “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” Common sense indeed.
A Truth Universally Acknowledged… is available in hardback from Amazon for £14.00.
Guest post by Kerry Ryan