Wednesday, 1 February 2017

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Being an Austen lover I could not resist this title. This is about the author Amy Elizabeth Smith's quest to see what people think about Austen outside the English speaking world. She decided to take a year off her tutoring literature at a university in the US, to travel to six countries in South America in order to discuss Jane Austen's books. To do this she had to start by learning Spanish.

If you love Austen it is a great read. Even if you don't love Austen you can enjoy it. She gathered book loving people from Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, had them read a book by Austen and meet up to discuss it. Amy Smith was surprised to see how much Austen's writing was valid also in a total different society from which she wrote. Almost all of the participants found something in her book which they could adapt to present life.

This is probably the charm with Austen, and why she is still so popular 200 years after her death. There is something there for everyone. As the book starts:
"Jane Austen just won't stay on the page."
Amy Smith asks what it is about Austen that makes people talk about her characters as if they are real people. They are characters that we still recognise all around us today. There is someone there for everyone. Some we love more than others, and some we just don't like at all. But there is a common denominator; they all engage us one way or the other. I think that is what we all want from the books we read. Characters that engage us, and Austen is a master in this sense.
"Soledad from the reading group back in Mexico had been curious about the degree of fame Austen achieved in her lifetime - and while Austen lived to see public acclaim, in her wildest dreams she could never have imagined that nearly two hundred years after her death, in a country of steamy jungles and skyscraping mountains half a globe away, men would be arguing in a crowded post office about a Spanish translation of her dear Pride and Prejudice."
Smith not only went to South America to discuss the books of Austen, she also wanted to read authors from the countries she visited. She ended up sending quite a lot of books back home. One peculiar thing she found (and it took her visiting several of the countries before she got an explanation to the riddle) is that when she asked for Austen's books in the bookshops, the person working in the shop, did not pick up the books from the same shelf. They picked the books from very different shelves, all over the book store, and she could not understand why. In the end it turned out that the book shops are not organised in alphabetical order by author as we are used to, but by publishers.
"Why do you do that?" I asked.  
He shrugged again and said, predictably, "Why not?"
Smith realised during her trips that even if she did not know anyone in advance, she very quickly got new friends, because they all had a common interest. Books! A common interest, like books for example, take you a long way to get to know people, share views, enjoy the company of others. It does not matter if you come from different countries, have other beliefs, books takes you on a common road forward.

So many different aspects of Jane Austen's writing came up in the discussions of the various groups. Here is one.
"…Austen wasn't interested in sketching the countryside. She was drawing psychological landscapes. It's the opposite of a writer like Emily Brontë. The countryside is so central to what's she's writing about, it's almost -""It's a character, really," I cut in."Exactly!" Hugo said."Just look at the titles," Hugo continued." Wuthering Heights. The place is a character, it controls the characters. In Emma, it's the woman who's in charge."
Amy Elizabeth Smith has written a charming book about her year with Austen. It is not only about Austen, but also about the various countries she visits, the customs, the people, happenings, good and bad. It is very well written, and you are curious how people in the next country will view Austen. She also manages to highlight how well Austen's writing is adaptable also on our modern way of life. Or like one of the participants (in a divorce procedure) in a group said: "You know," he went on, "I thought I married a Lizzy Bennet, but maybe I really picked a Lydia?" Austen is always there lingering in the background!


  1. This sounds fun and fascinating! Thanks -- I'd not heard of this one before and I am an Austen fan!

  2. Well, that is what book blogging friends are for! It is fun, interesting and gives you another take on Jane Austen. It is amazing how she is able to entertain 200 years later.