Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

A Truth Universally Acknowledged
A Truth Universally Acknowledged:  33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson, is a book I had on my wish from the moment I heard it was being published.  Granted, I snatch up pretty much any non-fiction work about Jane Austen and the extended Regency period in England, but this sounded perfect for me.  If I were to go to a bookstore looking for the perfect gift for me, this would be very high on the list of qualifying books.

A Truth Universally Acknowledged needs no real summary because it's all right there in the very descriptive title.  It's 33 writers- all of them big fans of Jane Austen- talking about why they read her novels, over and over again.  Note that they are talking specifically about reading her novels.  They are not talking about reading other people's sequels to her books.  Not talking about reading Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.  Not talking about watching the many film adaptations.  No- they are talking about reading Jane herself, in all her subtle, ironic and hilarious glory.

Sounds great, right?  And it is!  Except when it's not.

Emma CoverLet me explain.  When an author only wrote six full-length novels, it is a bit overwhelming to have a book featuring 33 essays on her.  I love Jane Austen, but there are only so many times I can read the quotes "a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory" or "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." before they start seeming overdone.  And then when one essay quotes another essay that is also included in the collection, well... that just gets a bit too incestuous for my tastes.

My favorite Austen novel is Persuasion.  I also love Pride & Prejudice and Emma, to a lesser extent.  But I do not like Mansfield Park.  Sadly, however, that novel seemed to get the most attention in this essay collection.  Or perhaps it just seemed that way to me because the essays on Fanny Price were quite repetitive ("Yes, she's boring, but she's such a good person!").  After those, Amy Heckerling's light and fun essay called "The Girls Who Don't Say, Whoo!" was a welcome relief.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection of essays, if only because it made me want to reread all of Austen's novels (especially Emma, though I plan to read Persuasion already for the Flashback Challenge).  They also made me think about them in a different way.  It's easy, especially with the film adaptations, to romanticize Austen's work and believe that it's all about true love.  But as Susannah Carson says,

Austen does not set out to describe ideal relationships. Her interest is in flawed characters who achieve a greater level of self-understanding throughout the course of each novel and who are rewarded at the end with relationships which, although never entirely perfect, are perfect for them.

Persuasion CoverAnd so it is only through reading the books that we are able to come back to the essence of Austen.  That she wrote witty, intelligent and realistic novels, not love stories about defeating all odds and being with your soul mate no matter what.  It was fun to read essays gushing over Austen- not only for the reasons I love her, but for a host of other reasons I never considered before this collection.

I just wish that there had been more judicious editing.  I think 33 essays is too many to include due to significant amounts of repetition in theme, content and quotes.  Twenty (or even 15) would have been sufficient for me.  But that said... there was no way I wasn't going to get my hands on this book :-)  I think any Janeite would appreciate reading the collection.

This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review


  1. Thank you for your insights into the book, being an avid reader (yes reader, not just watcher of movies)when I saw the book I was intrigued.

    I saw it last week somewhere else online and was intrigued, now that I have seen it again here I suppose I will soon be adding it to my collection.

  2. Anonymous2/02/2010

    This sounds like my kind of book. I too love Jane Austen, and Persuasion is my favourite as well, though Emma is a very close second.

    Critical essays can get a little tedious and repetitive at times...how much is there to say, really, at the end of the day? How many truly new angles on Austen's work? I do like reading literary criticism though because sometimes it does open my eyes to things I never noticed before, and it makes me a more intelligent reader. I hope my library carries this because I'd love to read it!

  3. It sounds like you have had an overdose of Jane Austen with this book. I have just started to read my first Jane Austen book, so I have lots of wonderfulness still to come.

  4. I always feel - though this could be just me projecting my own issues onto other people - that all the people who rush to Fanny's defense ("she's very good!") are just trying to talk themselves into liking a basically rather unlikeable character. I enjoy reading Mansfield Park because Jane Austen is still her witty, observant self, but I lost patience with Fanny when she started being such a spoilsport about the play.

    Did they say much about Northanger Abbey? It's obviously a far less finished book than Austen's others, but I think Henry Tilney (Tilney?) is the best of the Austen heroes.

  5. Great review! I'm glad I read your thoughts on it first because it sounds like something I would've bought at first glance since I love Jane Austen but I would have probably been as disappointed as you. You're right....we don't need to read 33 essays on why people love Austen...better to just reread her novels.

  6. I've looked at this one a few times and always been intrigued, but I think my main apprehension is just what you mentioned -- that 33 essays, all dealing with similar content, might get a bit dry for me. Still, I love my Austen and can never get enough -- I'm sure I'll buy this at some point :)

  7. Emma- Yes, I think if you're an Austen fan, it's worth having just for your own comfort.

    Books Snob- Yes, I agree. There were some insights that I enjoyed and that I will take with me to my next reading of Austen.

    Vivienne- Yes, you do! Enjoy :-) Which are you reading? Pride & Prejudice?

    Jenny- I lost patience with Fanny then, too! I mean, I know times were different and the play was probably a little risque, but once it is decided on... and yes, there were a few essays on NA. I completely agree about Henry Tilney! Hilarious man :-)

    Mrs. B.- You're right and I DO plan to reread Austen sooner rather than later now.

    Meg- I felt the same way. "Do I really want this? Yes, because I'll keep thinking about it if I do NOT get it!"

  8. Thank you for reviewing this book. I would give you 33 reasons why I liked it but after 3 it would become boring. First, I haven't even heard of the book so now I want to look into it. And two, I like your honesty about it.


  9. You made some really great points in this review! I hadn't heard of this book so when I saw it here I thought it sounded great but then, yes, 33 essays would get a little rote. Might be one best to pick up from time to time maybe. Great review - thank you!

  10. Anne- Thanks! I hope I am generally honest about the books I review :-)

    Amused- I agree. Reading it slowly over time might work well. Or reading essays pertaining to one novel before reading that novel.

  11. This sounds great, Aarti! And I love that cover design - the book within the book. Had to look twice to see if that was the cover or a photo of someone reading the book. Even if the book should have been more tightly edited, the good thing about a collection like this is that one can dip in and out. I'll have to pick this up.

  12. It sounds like this could have been a little tighter of a read had the editors been a bit more judicious. I do like the sound of this book, though I am not sure that I would like to read so many similar statements about Fanny Price being a bore! I still want to pick this book up and give it a bit of a perusal, but I am not going to go to any lengths to add it to my collection right now. Very perceptive review Aarti.

  13. Anonymous2/02/2010

    I do definitely enjoy the Austen novels I've read, but I honestly don't have any desire to read 33 essays about her and her work. I take that back. I can see myself reading a few at a time, just not sitting down and reading them all at once.

  14. It amazes me how many books on Jane Austen or inspired by Jane Austen there are out there. I have yet to read her (I know -- how can I call myself a reader if I've never read Jane Austen???) but I'm fixing that this year.

  15. Frances- I like the cover design, too!

    Zibilee- I think it would be good to read th "general" essays together and then save the ones specific to novels for when you might read that novel. That would be less of an overdose.

    Carol- Yes, that would be a good approach. Mine was flawed!

    Jenners- It IS amazing how many Austen-inspired things there are. And to what lengths people take them, too, with multi-generational epics and vampires and zombies... I hope you enjoy your Austen book!

  16. Hmm, interesting. I have to admit, I'm Jane Austen-ed out right now, but I may pick this one up once that subsides!

  17. Anonymous2/05/2010

    I saw this in the latest edition of Bas Bleu, and I was immediately intrigued, especially as PBS is doing a Jane Austen series again this winter. I need to read more than just Pride and Prejudice, I think!

  18. "A truth universally acknowledged" - I am familiar with the phrase and its source - recently, my philosophy group has been discussing the nature of belief, and seeing the phrase again, it's as if Jane Austen's entire proper rebel worldview is contained in that phrase.

  19. Nothing to add here but just wanted you to know I enjoyed your thoughts. Yes-- I'm still intrigued. Gluttony.

  20. It does sound like a bit much, but I'd still like to read it. Maybe reading it in smaller doses here and there would help? Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  21. Yet another book that I was considering to buy. Thank you for your detailed review, 33 is a bit much, impossible to not repeat the same much beloved quotes!


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