The Hot Cross Buns have been buttered and eaten, the Easter Eggs hunted for and found and the Easter tree with its array of Austrian eggs has been put away for another year…..I’m back from my Easter Break and hope you all had a wonderful Spring celebration too.
I went to a couple of exhibitions, the details of which I am going to share with you in a few days but first, a treat: an interview with Susannah Carson.
The organizers of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books recently contacted me to arrange an interview with Susannah Carson, the editor of the recently published anthology of Austen inspired critiques entitled, A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.
Susannah is due to appear at the Festival on Sunday the 25th April at 10.30 a.m. in the Young Hall CS 50, speaking in the Writing on Writers Panel, and if any of you are in the area I hope you can go and listen to her.
The book is a fascinating read: one I found best read not in one long swoop, but better experienced little by little , essay by essay, allowing room for thoughtful contemplation of the differing views. Some of the articles I agreed with, some I did not. As someone who is probably more in tune with the past than the present I found the exclusion of writers beyond the last 100 years slightly sad. But overall it is a good, thought provoking collection body of criticism. It is a perfect bedside or bathside anthology for anyone interesting in the reasons why, after nearly 200 years, we still continue to read and enjoy Jane Austen’s works.
And I was truly delighted to be given the opportunity to discuss with Susannah –via the wonderful medium of email thereby avoiding any delays due to unexpected volcanic eruptions-the whys and wherefores of her book.
Here is our exchange of views. I do hope you enjoy it.
1.What were your criteria for including a writer’s views on Jane Austen in the compilation?
There were two main criteria.
First, the essay had to address the “Why?” question. Why do we read Jane Austen? Why does she continue to influence how we think and feel, write and read, two hundred years later? This seems to me to be one of the great and wonderful literary mysteries. And by answering the “Why?” question, we get insights into the other how, when, why, where, and even when questions as well.
Second, the essay had to be written in an engaging voice—the kind of voice that allows us to imagine the writer on the other side of the page. I wasn’t looking for omniscient voices that echo through damp, archival corridors or sound like a canned telephone tree. The authors of these essays sound like they’re sitting on the other side of a café table, reminiscing, reflecting, sometimes even leaning forward and slapping their hands down on the table when they’re trying to make a favorite point.
2. Were there any writers (living or dead) whom you considered including, but then rejected? If so, who were they, and why?
There are some wonderful passages and essays on Austen composed by 19th-century authors: George Saintsbury, Margaret Oliphant, Sir Walter Scott.
We decided to only include essays from the last hundred years: anything older might have brought something like attic mustiness to the collection.
3. Excepting your own essay, with which writer’s view did you most agree?
I find myself referring most often to four passages.
The first is by Susanna Clarke, (the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel-jfw) who reminds us that marriage is a career choice for Austen’s heroines.
“Today the idea of marriage is a loaded one; at best it’s a closing down of options. Austen’s women saw things differently. For them life opened up at the point of marriage. The married state, not the single state, meant liberation….Of course this bid for freedom only worked if you married the right person” (3-4).
I like the passage because it emphasizes a certain perspective on Austen that I’ve always loved: that the novels aren’t “about” marriage; that they’re about heroines coming into their own, what Eva Brann calls “the settling of a woman for life” (201).
The second passage works in counterpoint to the first. Margot Livesey explains that the love stories work because
“the reader must come to feel that this romance is not merely a matter of personal preference between two people, but that a whole world order is in question until these two find each other.”
I like the idea that love really does matter.
The third passage is by Eva Brann, who reminds us that happy literature isn’t merely light literature, that tragic literature isn’t necessarily more serious.
She writes, “Jane Austen…knows what the angels know—that happiness is more worthy of note than unhappiness” (202).
And the fourth passage is about how reading influences how we see the world. Alain de Botton writes,
“One effect of reading a book which traces the faint yet vital tremors of our psyche and social interactions is that, once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our own life, we may attend to precisely those things the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company. […] Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity” (143).
The passage goes straight to the heart of how books work, of why they matter.
I also love Jay McInerney’s phrase, “beautiful minds,” Lionel Trilling’s “secular scriptures,” Harold Bloom’s “achieved ellipsis,” James Collins’s “wobbly figurine,” Rebecca Mead’s “Fantasy Dinner Party,” Amy Bloom’s “terrible Jane,” the lovely and sadly late Louis Auchincloss’s “good life”—and so on throughout the collection.
4. Did you disagree with any of the sentiments expressed by the contributing authors?
There is one truly dissenting voice, and if I were to disagree with any of the authors in the collection then it would be Kingsley Amis.
In “What Became of Jane Austen?” Amis calls Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, “a monster of complacency and pride” (127). The essay is important, however, for it helps us understand why subsequent essays on Mansfield Park so often defend it against the claims of priggish monstrosity.
5. Why do you continue to read Jane Austen? Why do you consider her works continue to speak to you (and us!) after a period of nearly 200 years?
Harold Bloom writes in How to Read and Why that “imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness.” Austen’s works continue to resonate, I think, because they let us know that we’re not alone in the world. I find that the experience of reading Austen is at once personal—just me and a good book—but also communal in all sorts of ways. There’s the relationship with the characters, the relationship with the imagined author, and buzzing behind the book there are all the relationships with all the other readers out there. I won’t get to meet most of them, but one of the rewards of putting together this book is that I get to know lots and lots of other Janeites. Reading Jane Austen has shown me that reading isn’t an activity distinct from real life, but that it’s an experience capable of infusing all of life.
I should like to thank Susannh for her very thoughtful replies to my questions, and wish her every success at the Festival.
If you are not able to visit the Festival in person but would like to follow events as they happen you can do so by following the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books here on Twitter. If any of my Readers do go, please do let us have your views on the Panel. We’d love to hear them.