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51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best compilation of Austen essays I've yet seen: thought provoking, fun to read, and only occasionally pompous
While I groan at yet another overuse of "a truth universally acknowledged" and a subtitle that claims all 33 of its writers are great writers and the limitations implied by the "on why we read Jane Austen," I can assure you that, once you get past the cover, the contents of this book, with a few pontificating and dryly academic exceptions, comprise an absolute treasure...
Published on October 3, 2009 by Sharon Isch

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Jane Austen Fan Club
The 33 essays in this collection vary widely in quality. When they are good, they are the real deal. Good lit crit ideally should reveal things (ideas, connections, factual background) that the reader would otherwise fail to find on her own. After a disappointing beginning (two essays by great writers, Eudora Welty and EM Forster, that praise highly but say little that...
Published on October 23, 2009 by Charlus


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51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best compilation of Austen essays I've yet seen: thought provoking, fun to read, and only occasionally pompous, October 3, 2009
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While I groan at yet another overuse of "a truth universally acknowledged" and a subtitle that claims all 33 of its writers are great writers and the limitations implied by the "on why we read Jane Austen," I can assure you that, once you get past the cover, the contents of this book, with a few pontificating and dryly academic exceptions, comprise an absolute treasure trove for fans of Jane Austen.

I especially liked this from J. B. Priestley on why he loves Elizabeth Bennet: "She is a real girl, a person in her own right, with a will of her own, instead of the beautiful dummy that so many romantic men writers bring into their fiction. Literature is crowded with mere dream figures we are asked to accept as heroines. But real women are much better, altogether more satisfying than dream figures; and Elizabeth Bennet is one of the first and best of them in fiction, not only English but all fiction."

Also...David Lodge finds "Emma" the novel that most perfectly represents JA's genius, but Virginia Woolf thinks the unfinished and, in the main, inferior story "The Watsons" sheds more light upon its writer's genius....Martin Amis longs for a twenty-page sex scene at the end of "Pride and Prejudice," with Mr. Darcy "acquitting himself uncommonly well"....Fay Weldon posits that "Mansfield Park's" dutiful Fanny Price and rebellious Mary Crawford represent the two sides of the author that she never quite reconciled in herself....Benjamin Nugent nominates Mary Bennet as one of the earliest examples of a nerd in a famous work of fiction....John Wiltshire delves into why it's so difficult to get Austen right onscreen and screenwriter Amy Heckerling writes on the challenges of turning "Emma" into "Clueless"....Dr. Johnson keeps cropping up, stealing some of the credit for JA's greatness--for example, C.S. Lewis praises her "Johnsonian cadence" and W. Somerset Maugham discerns the influence of Dr. J. in the structure of her sentences....The question of whether Austen's failure to mention Napoleon in novels written during the Napoleonic wars is evidence of her limitations gets some required airings....Harold Bloom considers why he and others he's talked with always feel very sad after rereading "Persuasion," "this perfect novel." Diane Johnson tells us that Austen actually titled that last novel "The Elliots," but she died before it was published and her relatives changed the title.... Another interesting tidbit from Diane Johnson: Have you realized--I hadn't--that Austen never wrote a scene where women weren't present and chose never to go into the minds of servants or men?

I also loved this essay-ender from Margot Livesey: "I read Austen first as a teenager, then in the company of a long romance, later still as a single woman, and now as a married woman. And in each of these incarnations I have understood that Austen is speaking to me, and about me, and about that deep need to have the world we live in--be it Bath, or Lyme Regis or the Lower East Side--make sense."

Now if that doesn't make you want to drop everything and get your hands on this book, I don't know what will.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensable., October 5, 2009
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This is about as good a book on Austen as I can recall. It has the minor and inevitable flaws of any work built on a set of independent short essays with no linkage or synthesis; there are a few pieces that don't add much and variations in quality. All in all, though, it is excellent in coverage and specific content.

In reviewing it, I have forced myself not to display the syndrome that is the core of the book's analysis: my own personal, unique and totally assured understanding of the great Jane and relationship with her. There seems to be no other novelist in the language who so speaks to the reader in ways that build a sense of her being a presence for oneself. In poetry, Chaucer is perhaps the closest in this regard; both are ironists, brilliant in making the writer/reader link a conversation you are invited into and acutely accurate observers of their chosen world. This book does a pretty good job of deciphering just how she does it. One of its major strengths is the inclusion of work by heavy duty writers who know all the tricks of the trade. The essays offer some of the best analyses I have come across of how she builds her characterization that is more thematic and backed by a complex moral perspective that is easy to overlook in the vivid foreground of the story.

The book includes too many sharp insights to even hint at. It also is well-balanced in including sensible (non gushing, non didactic) aspects of her work that are routinely discussed in many other critical reviews: her careful bounding of the space of her story's setting (my own favorite example is that there is not a single instance of two males speaking in a private conversation; Austen the observer had never observed this and Austen the novelist wouldn't even try to bring it to a false life), the social context of the Regency period, with some new insights on the bonds of social hierarchy that drive many elements of the story but are so easy to overlook, and her style, with its unique "voice" that lures the reader in as joint observer.

There's so much more to the book. It's for serious readers who know the novels well. At times, I got a little lost in the subtlety of the analysis of Sense and Sensibility and the tonalities of the comments on Emma. It's not a "Janeite" book. It treats Austen respectfully as the writer who most reached a perfection within the bounds of her ambitions. It's also excellent to read as a whole and to dip into.

My summary assessment is "indispensable." If you love Austen then you need this book.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars JA for All, November 6, 2009
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Walter P. Sheppard (Arlington, VA United States) - See all my reviews
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Do you enjoy reading Jane Austen? Then this book is for you whether you started reading her when you were eleven, as my wife did, or in your sixties, as I did. Whatever reason you enjoy JA, you will find someone here who shares your enthusiasm, someone who has a different reason for liking her, and three or four someones who have unique or at least unusual reasons for their enthusiasm. Each of the six novels has at least one essayist who proclaims it as the best, and each has at least one prepared to label it as the least successful.

All of the writers have personal insights to offer. For example, have you noticed that there are no substantive scenes in JA with men only? She didn't know how men talk when they are by themselves, and she didn't try to invent it. Elsewhere her novels are criticized because they ignore the Napoleonic wars that were going on when she wrote, but they were not part of her life and experience even with brothers in the Royal Navy, so she left them out except for incidental references in "Persuasion." As Eudora Welty puts it in her essay, "never did it escape Jane Austen that the interesting situations of life can take place, and notably do, at home." (I would suggest amending that to read "the lastingly interesting situations of life.")

Editor Carson's title is, of course, from one of JA's most quoted lines, and the writers she assembled are themselves a quotable lot. I cannot completely resist the temptation to sample them. E. M. Forster has an amusing description of himself as a JA reader: "I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. . . . She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers. The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he ascribes so freely to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said."

Rebecca Read proposes six reasons for reading JA. One is "because it's possible to read everything she wrote," contrasting her output of "six completed novels, three unfinished ones, three volumes of juvenilia, and some poems and letters" with the forty-seven of Trollope "-- enough to take a busy reader several lifetimes to complete." Whereas, "one of the greatest rewards of reading Jane Austen . . . is that having done so, we get to reread Jane Austen on a later occasion."

Harold Bloom wrote the book's Foreword and an essay that sends readers to "Persuasion" (my personal favorite after "Pride and Prejudice"). He calls it a "perfect novel" and praises "its extraordinary aesthetic distinction." He describes its heroine, Anne Elliot, as "a quietly elegant being, . . . a self-reliant character in no way forlorn" whose "sense of self never falters."

I could go on, but I think my favorite is this from Welty: ". . . she had been born, or rewarded, with fairy gifts -- not one, but two entirely separate ones. She had the genius of originality, and she had the genius of comedy. And they never fought each other at all, but worked together in a harmony that must have delighted her in a way we rejoice to think about, and a way particularly belonging to the eighteenth century, whose spiritual child she was."

Carson's subtitle -- "33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen" -- tells us she has given us a set of invigorating reminders by great writers of what you are missing if you haven't read JA lately or (sadly) at all. Here you'll quickly discover what you could be missing: unforgettable characters, both loveable and hateful; carefully constructed plots; a world in which people are the same as in our time, but whose outward behavior is controlled by the Regency world in which JA lived and wrote; and her gentle irony and subtle wit. (It was the last that first drew me into her novels, beginning, naturally, with the sentence that provided the title of this collection.)

If you can read a substantial number of the essays Carson has gathered and not come away with your appreciation of JA greatly enriched, you must be a dullard indeed!

From Amis, Kingsley and Martin, to Woolf, Virginia, this is a book to dip into, to browse in, rather than to read straight through. There are no negative voices; misguided, pitiable souls who don't like JA won't find any sympathizers here.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Jane Austen Fan Club, October 23, 2009
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The 33 essays in this collection vary widely in quality. When they are good, they are the real deal. Good lit crit ideally should reveal things (ideas, connections, factual background) that the reader would otherwise fail to find on her own. After a disappointing beginning (two essays by great writers, Eudora Welty and EM Forster, that praise highly but say little that is new, and a dull one on Bibliography) we get to a long stretch of insightful, often witty contributions. Martin Amis is dead on about the moment in P&P that we fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet. Ian Watt is admirable about the forgotten social norms that provide the framework for understanding Sense and Sensibility. And Diane Johnson is wonderful on Persuasion (my personal favorite) and less pompous than Harold Bloom who covers the same novel.

Two glaring omissions from the all-star lineup include Tony Tanner, whose essay on Mansfield Park is one of the smartest pieces of lit crit I've ever come across, and James Wood, whose essay on Austen from The Broken Estate is required reading for any Austen fan.

So if you are a Janeite there is much to savour in this smorgasbord, although be warned that the dishes range from gourmet to indigestible.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a dense delight for the devoted Austen reader, October 21, 2009
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This volume contains 33 essays on all things Jane Austen. Represented here are classic authors and modern, novelists, poets, academics, critics, a psychologist, historians and even a filmmaker or two. Eudora Welty. EM Forster, Lionel Trilling, Somerset Maugham, JB Priestley, CS Lewis, Virginia Woolf -- these elder authors remind us that Austen has been around for two hundred years and, while she has gone in and out of mainstream fashion, she has always been appreciated by a statistical (and discerning :-) few. Amy Heckerling, Benjamin Nugent, Anna Quindlen, Amy Bloom, Susanna Clarke, James Collins, Margot Livesey, Fay Weldon, David Lodge and Diane Johnson attest to Austen's relevance even today. As expected, the topics are wide-ranging, and the essayists are articulate and provocative. The works are dense; if you're looking for light and breezy chats about Austen, then this isn't the book you want to pick up. The topics range from the very personal to the detached and academic. If you've read the novels and want to go deeper, if you want to learn about Austen -- her intentions, her techniques, her admirers -- then you will find this volume a rewarding and worthwhile read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why Jane? Here's Why, November 23, 2009
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As others have said, not all of these writers are "great" nor are all of the essays profound or even insightful. Yet I think that the book is a success and well worth the reading.

The target audience here appears to be nothing less than all readers who enjoy Jane Austen. This includes those who seek the pleasure of a lively romantic story told with wit as well as those who see profound human insight in what Austen offers. The selection of writings is just that broad as well, ranging from the relatively trivial (Rebecca Mead's "Six Reasons to Read Jane Austen") to labors of love (Brian Southam's lovely essay on fifty years of seeking and studying original Austen manuscripts) to misguided rants such as Kingsley Amis's ineffective attempt to show that Jane Austen's "judgment and her moral sense were corrupted [and that] `Mansfield Park' is the witness of that corruption." Nor is Amis the only prominent writer represented by a true clinker (Fay Weldon's overblown psychoanalysis unsupported by facts).

Gems are also here. John Wiltshire wonders why we still turn to the novels when multiple excellent film versions of them exist. He then explores Austen's meticulous prose (famously almost devoid of physical description of any kind) and contrasts it to the very nature of film, where the viewer cannot escape physicality, both visual and aural. We see the people, the houses, the dances and the landscape. We hear music, both back grounded as accompaniment and fore grounded as part of the characters' experience. Constant nuances of sound and sight in film (e. g. lighting, close-ups, intensity of look or voice, musical content and tone etc.) that Austen almost never described unavoidably produce moods that she deliberately avoided invoking in prose. Austen's use of description is rare and intended, by its rarity, to emphasize specific effects. This is not only a wonderful exploration of Austen's art but a contemplation of the essential difference between the art of writing and that of film.

Lewis Auchincloss, an artist similar to Austen in terms both of the relatively small social world wherein he works and for exploring the moral choices that he finds there, contributes a beautifully written essay seeking the nature of the "good life" as conceived by Austen's heroines and thus by Austen herself.

Similarly C. S. Lewis's essay notes the prevalence of an "awakening" or "undeception" as the pivotal plot device in four of the six finished novels (the exceptions are "Mansfield Park" and "Persuasion" where, says Lewis, the heroines make no mistakes) and considers that the device reveals the core of the novels' morality. His arguments are sound; but, when he turns to Fanny ("Mansfield Park") and Anne Elliot ("Persuasion"), I think Lewis errs. His errors are essential as to Anne and not as serious for Fanny; but space precludes discussion of that here.

I suspect that editor Carson wanted an anthology that would appeal to anyone who has read Austen with enjoyment, and possibly provoke further interest in exploration of Austen's art. She has done just that.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking essays on Jane Austen, October 15, 2009
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M&M (Seattle, WA USA) - See all my reviews
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Let me start by saying that Jane Austen is my favorite author and -- yes -- I've actually read her books and didn't just see the movies. This collection of essays gave me new ideas to ponder, as well as an opportunity to revisit why I love Jane. In fact, reading these essays made me want to reread all her novels as well as her letters.

What I liked about this collection was the mix of the authors. They include amazing writers from the past such as C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham, as well as current authors like A.S. Byatt, Anna Quindlen and Amy Bloom. There are academics, critics, playwrights, a psychologist and even a screenwriter. (Amy Heckerling wrote the screenplay for "Clueless" based on Austen's book "Emma.") Each essay focuses on a different aspect of Austen's writing, e.g., "the Nerds of Pride and Prejudice," "The Radiance of Jane Austen," "Reading and Rereading Emma," "Some Thoughts on the Craft of Austen's Persuasion." Although many of them make the same or similar points, they each have something unique to bring to the discussion. My one suggestion for improvement would be to put the author's bio info at the beginning of each essay rather than at the end of the book.

One of my favorite essays by Rebecca Mead gives Six Reasons to Read Jane Austen. The first is "because we can't invite her to dinner, even though we'd like to" and the second "because she probably wouldn't want to come." I'm not sure we could stand up under her sharp wit. What would she think of what society has become? I also enjoyed the essay by John Wiltshire (an academic) who wrote about all the things that Austen didn't say but left to our imaginations. If you think about it, Austen gave very limited physical descriptions of her characters and almost no descriptions of the scenery or the houses that the stories are set in. This allows us to focus on what Austen deems important -- what the characters think and say.

While I loved reading these essays, I don't think we shouldn't get so caught up in analyzing them that we miss the point. Anna Quindlen says it best, "Serious literary discussions of Pride and Prejudice threaten to obscure the most important thing about it: It is a pure joy to read." I think pure joy is a fantastic way to describe Jane Austen.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice Collection of Essays on Jane Austen, October 21, 2009
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Title A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen
Author
Bloom, Harold
Susannah Carson
Rating ****
Tags jane austen, essays, essay collection

The book is a collection of essays by academics and authors on Jane Austen. Included are such famous names as Virginia Woolf, Harold Bloom, Lionel Trilling, A. S. Byatt, J.B. Priestley, Anna Quindlen, and more.

It is always hard to review a collection of essays, as they tend to be uneven, either in quality or in their level of interest for any particular reader. Editor Carson, however, has from over 100 years worth of material - all the essays seem to be 20th century or later. It is a little hard to tell the exact time span, as nowhere is the date of the original publication given for each essay, and that is a feature I would have appreciated. Editor Susannah Carson chose the essays well... one almost has the sense of an ongoing conversation about Austen by a group of lively dinner guests. The essayists are pretty much all Janeites. Some of them mention common criticisms of Austen, but mostly to refute them. Essays that are about a specific one of the six novels tend to be clustered together.

Not all of the essays are about her works. Trilling has an essay on teaching a seminar on Austen that he planned to limit to 20 students, but 140 showed up. He managed to whittle the class down to 40, but was interested in the students' reactions to Austen and why they were so anxious to get into the course.

The essays don't all agree with each other. In one instance, an essay is followed by another that says the exact opposite about the same two characters, which turns our dinner conversation into a debate. Others are quite unique; for example, the one by Amy Heckerling is about her turning Austen's novel Emma into the movie Clueless.

I must confess that of the six novels I've read only Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and I've seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility. Yet I now feel I understand Jane Austen and her appeal to a widely diverse audience. Perhaps most surprising is the number of male Janeites, as in my mind she was something of an ancestress to chick lit. It would be a shame if she does get pigeon holed that way in the future.

The essays have given me a desire to read the novels I haven't yet read, but also to read some of her unpublished works, especially her satirical History of England, written when she was fifteen. Here's a sample, from the piece about Henry VIII:

"Nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general."

You may now call me a Janeite.

Foreword - Bloom, Harold
Publication Random House (2009), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1400068053 / 9781400068050
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The real Jane Austen Book Club!, April 19, 2010
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I have just indulged in a week of Jane Austen. It's so good for the soul; I really should make it an annual tradition. I read one of the six original novels, a contemporary update of one of the novels, watched cinematic adaptations, and finally delved into this wonderful book of literary criticism. I'd been holding off, wanting to be just a bit more steeped in Janeism before I tackled it. I've been so looking forward to diving in based merely on the wildly distinguished list of contributors.

There are renowned literary critics like Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, academicians like John Wiltshire and Janet Todd, classic novelists like Eudora Welty and Somerset Maugham, and contemporary novelists like A.S. Byatt and Jay McInerney. There's even a token filmmaker, Amy Heckerling! There is no hyperbole at all in the assertion that these are 33 (34, really) great writers. One name is more impressive than the next, and I've barely scratched the surface.

Based on the diversity of the contributors, you would be correct in suspecting the diversity of the essays in this collection. Some deal with the author herself, or the time in which she lived, others the entirety of her work, and some focus on a single novel. My first thought was to read the more general essays first and to then focus on the contributions specific to a novel after I had just read or re-read it, so that the particulars were very fresh in my mind. Now that I've been reading the essays, Austen's work, and the work of others inspired by Austen at roughly the same time, I don't believe my approach need be that rigid. Reading some of the essays on Emma while still reading the novel gave me great insights that I might not have come to or appreciated on my own.

I'm refraining, in this review, from pulling out quotes from the essays, but only because I wouldn't know where to start. There hasn't been one yet that wasn't infinitely quotable. Where's a highlighter when you need one? Some of the essays are more academic in tone than others (many have endnotes), but they are all smartly-written, challenging, and elucidating on this eminently worthy subject. This collection of essays will surely become a cherished reference I delve into over and over as I continue to enjoy Ms. Austen's timeless works the rest of my life.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than a box of chocolates, January 21, 2010
By 
B. J. Lewis (Highlands Ranch, CO) - See all my reviews
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What an absolute joy - one that I will appreciate for many days to come. Just as one does not eat a box of fine chocolates in one sitting, so will I linger over each one of these beautifully written essays. Yes, even though I have not read them all (I will!) I can jump to the obvious conclusion that they are all "beautifully written" since the majority are written by authors whose excellence is "universally acknowledged." I admit to following my own prejudices by reading them out of order. So far I have especially enjoyed W. Somerset Maugham's, especially his inclusion of several excerpts from Ms. Austen's letters to her sister - hilarious - and worth the price of the book.

It's interesting to note that the "universal" appreciation of Austen represented in this collection jumps not only generations, but centuries. Here, the earliest contributor in age is Maugham, born 1874, and the youngest, Benjamin Nugent, born 1977.

This is not only a "must-have" for Austen lovers, but also an excellent guide for anyone just beginning their own Austen journey - and how I envy your enjoyment of that experience.
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