Likely Stories: A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen

Jul 16, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

A large part of my graduate education revolved around the trinity of 19th century authors: George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen.  Susan Carson edited 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  This remarkable book drives the reader into Austen’s entire world from all angles.  Every devotee of Austen should own a copy of this work.  I hope I can find a similar book for Eliot and the Brontës.


The esteemed literary scholar, Harold Bloom, wrote a forward for this book.  He wrote, “Some literary works are mortal; Jane Austen’s are immortal.  What makes this so?  Austen’s work possesses an uncanniness, a certain mode of originality.  She created personality, character, and cognition: she brought into being new modes of consciousness” (v).  I thought a great deal about Austen and her work, but Bloom focuses on her as with a shining light.

Susan Carson’s Introduction begins with a quote from E. M. Forster.  He wrote, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen” (vi).  Carson continues, ‘Austen’s real influence on readers over the years cannot be measured.  Other writers have admirers; Austen has fans, societies, and even a cult of what Rudyard Kipling first termed ‘Janeites’ (vi).  Other books are read; Austen’s are devoured, digested, and reinterpreted in the everyday lives of her readers.  Other worlds are admired; Austen’s provide the landscape for further literary and artistic endeavors.  In addition to film adaptations, there has been an endless series of sequels, spin-offs, self-help books, dating guidebooks, cookbooks, board games, tarot card decks, figurines, websites, discussion forums, book club meetings, Empire waist fashions, and so on.  All, it would seem, are designed to enable devotees to maintain the illusion that they, too, are part of this special literary world (xii).

As we near the end of this dizzying array of talent, I thought I might end it with notes from Suzanne Clarke.  She quotes Austen, ‘Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of,’ (4).  Clark picks up the thread, “So said Jane Austen in Emma in the early 1800s, and for the rest of the 19th century novelists got a lot of mileage out of young persons who either died or married.  All of a woman’s future—her happy-ever-after or lack of the same—was implicit in her choice of husband” (4).

Jane Austen wrote six powerful, enchanting, lovely novels—along with a hand full of minor works.  I would compare Homer’s Ulysses to Austen’s Emma, as a foundational source for writers who still grow the splendid gardens that make up her works.  I highly recommend Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility.  Glorious reading!  10 stars for the set.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!