Are you a Jane Austen fan? I am. And I have often wondered how the simple stories of villages and the fate of women can hold so many generations.
I think it comes down to style. Jane has a quiet satirical style. For her novels are not really romances (though Hollywood might disagree). Romances are not enough to hold my attention. And, I think, the attention of generations. Instead, her novels tell of the raw life of women – in her time, and in ours.
Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character……Here ……are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness. It has the permanent quality of literature. Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values. Virginia Woolf
Looking deeper into Austen’s novels has thus become a habit of mine. Her characterisation is, indeed, her genius. Her commentary on social mores and the lives of women are both humorous and full of depth. So, you can imagine my delight at finding a copy of All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year Long Journey with Jane by Amy Smith at a local thrift shop.
Smith, a literature professor at a college in California, embarked on a sabbatical of travel through South America. I don’t know about you, but I love travel stories and travel diaries. During this year, Smith taught some classes to American exchange students, gave some lectures and talks on her travels, and on Jane Austen ( her special interest). Importantly, however, for the book and for Austen fans (whom Smith calls ‘Jane-ites’) Amy Smith runs Jane Austen book club discussions in each of the six countries she visits.
Smith’s writing style, alas, is not as poetic or delightful as is the style of Jane Austen. Indeed, parts of Smith’s book seem simplistic and, well, a tad boring. Overall, however, I have enjoyed the book – for two main reasons.
The first is the description of Smith’s travels. I adore travel. I also adore armchair travel, reading about the travels of others . Having never visited South America, I became engaged in the descriptions of the six countries that Smith visited, their similarities and their differences, their culture, their food, their bookshops. For Smith, rather than imposing the English Austen on her audiences, also engages in collegial book sharing. Each book club she visits makes suggestions for Smith on must-read novels and authors from that region. As a book-lover myself, the suggestions of new-to-me authors, against the backdrop of their culture, was an introduction to new reading and new paths of exploration.
The second reason why I enjoyed All Roads Lead to Austen, regardless of the somewhat prosaic writing style, is the discussion of how Jane Austen’s novels superseded culture and time. Each book group found something of value in Austen’s works. Each found connections with characters and conflict. Each book group, in each of the six South American countries, found time to read a translation of an Austen classic in order to discover or re-discover the relationship between art and humanity, that relationship which marks human solidarity.
As one of the book club participants in Ecuador said, while reading and discussing Pride and Prejudice, “If you don’t fight for space in your life for art and conversation, so much will pass you by—for anybody, but especially for women, since we’re always taking care of others.”
A feminist thought that Jane Austen echoed, in her life and in her work.