A Truth Universally Acknowledged: About Jane Austen

Janeites will love A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays by 33 famous writers and critics acknowledging the genius of Jane Austen.

Her admirers will have the pleasure of discovering their feelings shared by writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Somerset Maugham, CS Lewis, JB Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, David Lodge and critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Kudos to the editor, Susannah Carson, who brought them together in this book.

Martin Amis

Martin Amis speaks for us all when he tries to pin down the appeal of Pride and Prejudice:

For example, why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?

Elizabeth, of course, is very attractive. To quote Amis,

Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all else, with looks.

There is a fairytale element in the romance between beautiful, vivacious but penniless Elizabeth and rich and handsome Darcy.

But Amis shows it in a new light:

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most sociable book — and, strangely, her most socially idealistic…

The final paragraph gives us the extraordinary spectacle of Darcy opening his house, and his arms, to Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, who make what money they have through trade. Darcy, Jane Austen writes, “really loved them”. This is the wildest romantic extravagance in the entire corpus: a man like Darcy, chastened, deepened, and finally democratized by the force of love.

Jane Austen was only 21 when she wrote Pride and Prejudice and I like it best of all her novels.

Elizabeth Bennet is one of my favourite literary heroines — and so is Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

JB Priestley

JB Priestley also likes them both and finds them similar in nature.

That’s the pleasure of reading this book, where you find your feelings shared by famous writers.

Priestley writes about Elizabeth:

She is, to my mind, one of the most delightful girls in the whole wide range of English fiction. Oddly enough — for we never associate Jane Austen with Shakespeare —- Elizabeth has much in common with Shakespeare’s heroines, not the ultraromantic misses like Juliet and Desdemona and Ophelia but the heroines of comedies, like Rosalind and Viola and Beatrice. Like them —- and unlike nearly all the heroines of fiction and drama between Shakespeare and Jane Austen — she is lively and sensible, practical and affectionate, humorous and independent-minded. 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.

Priestley perceptively traces Jane Austen’s frequent use of irony to her social milieu:

Now the social world she described so minutely was that of the Regency, a period partly in the eighteenth, partly in the nineteenth, that had its own characteristics. It was a time when the rigid class system of the earlier eighteenth century in England was breaking down, especially in the middle, between the top ruling class of the wealthy and influential landowning aristocrats and the working classes. Now when you have a more or less rigid class system, with everybody more or less fixed on one social level or another, there is very little snobbery, just because people know exactly where they are and it is no use pretending. It is precisely when the system is breaking down, without completely disappearing, that there is most snobbery, most pretence of social importance and grandeur. So it is not surprising that the novels of Jane Austen, a member of the middle class during the period, should be, among other things, comedies of snobbery, social pretence and prejudice. 

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf speculates on what she might have been like at 60. (Jane Austen was only 41 when she died in 1817.)

“She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and Proust,” says Woolf.

I don’t know about Proust, but I can’t imagine Jane Austen writing anything so tortuous and over-refined as Henry James.

Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham is as perceptive as Priestley on Jane Austen.

He appreciates her humour and irony and the fact that she wrote about the English provincial life she knew and not about larger issues. Maugham writes:

It has been remarked that though she lived through some of the most stirring events of the world’s history, the French Revolution, the Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon, she made no reference to them in her novels… It should be remembered that in her day it was not polite for women to preoccupy themselves with politics… She was fond of her family, two of her brothers were in the navy, often enough in danger, and her letters show that they were much on her mind. But did she not show her good sense in not writing about such matters? She was too modest ever to suppose that her novels would be read long after her death, but if that had been her aim she could not have acted more wisely than she did in avoiding to deal with affairs which from the literary standpoint were of passing interest…

She wrote only of what she knew; and it has been noticed that she never attempted to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things she could never have heard.

Maugham explains why her novels were first published anonymously. He writes:

The novel was a form held in low esteem, and Jane Austen herself was not a little shocked that Sir Walter Scott, a poet, should write fiction. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened, but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming. Her eldest brother, James, never even told his son, then a boy at school, that the books he read with delight were by his aunt Jane; and her brother Henry in his memoir states: “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen.” So her first book to be published, Sense and Sensibility, was described on the title page as “by a Lady”.

Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1817 after her death in July that year. Maugham writes:

It is difficult to decide which is the best of them because they are all so good… Macaulay though Mansfield Park her greatest achievement; other critics, equally illustrious, have preferred Emma; Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice seventeen times; today many look upon Persuasion as her most exquisite and finished work.  The great mass of readers, I believe, has accepted Pride and Prejudice as her masterpiece, and in such a case I think it well to accept their judgment…

My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Pride and Prejudice is on the whole most satisfactory of her novels.

Maugham ends on a sardonic note, noting that Jane Austen herself was looked down upon by the descendants of her eldest brother who had become a titled landowner. He quotes from a letter by a Lady Knatchbull, who wrote to a Mrs Rice:

Yes my love it is very Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, & and if she had lived 50 years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes.

Maugham concludes:

It just shows that you may make a great stir in the world and yet sadly fail to impress the members of your own family.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom also shows a keen appreciation for Jane Austen, relating her novels to her personal life. She writes:

Jane Austen had experienced her own Lady Russell, Anne Lefroy, a sensible, class-conscious woman watching over a favourite person — not Jane, but her Irish suitor, Tom Lefroy. Madame Lefroy counselled her beloved nephew to act with prudence and end a relationship that promised too long a wait (while he pursued a law career) and no financial benefit. Tom Lefroy, like Anne Elliot (in Persuasion), took the advice and ended the romance. He married later, and
although Jane Austen received two other proposals — one in which she, like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, said yes at night and no the next day — she did not marry. Unlike her own Anne Elliot, Jane was not prudent in her youth, learning the value of romance only after eight years of loss and loneliness. The young Jane Austen was a shameless flirt and a cheerful admirer of gentlemen’s assets (one’s dark eyes, another’s broad shoulders), and delighted in her own ability to catch a man’s eye. She did not give up on love, ever, but preferred a profound and loving intimacy with her sister, Cassandra, to the dull sham of an agreeable but empty marriage; she would not be wed, but she would love and be loved, deeply and passionately.

Amy Bloom concludes:

True love — rare, unfashionable, unlikely, and inimitable — is the only persuasion Jane Austen recommends and that’s why I love her. It’s also why I read her. She knows a good deal about what else is persuasive in the world — money, position, and security — and she writes about all those things with appreciation. She disliked poverty; she loathed being poor; and she was thrilled by the chance to go to a good party, flirt with handsome men, and ride in a comfortable carriage. She had two inadequate agents — her father and her brother — and she despaired of their incompetence and how little money she was able to earn… Miss Austen says, thoughtfully, even with a sigh of regret: Those things are really very nice, but they are not better than love and they will not compensate for its absence.

Jane Austen is, for me, the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than romance, and who cares more for the private than the public. She understands that men and women have to grow up in order to deserve and achieve great love, that some suffering is necessary… and that people who mistake the desirable object for the one necessary and essential love will get what they deserve.

The essays quoted here are:

  • Force of Love: Pride and Prejudice by Martin Amis
  • Austen Portrays a Small World with Humour and Detachment by JB Priestley
  • Jane Austen at Sixty by Virginia Woolf
  • Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice by W Somerset Maugham
  • Terrible Jane by Amy Bloom

From the book, A Truth Universally Acknowledged, edited by Susannah Carson.

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