Friday, June 29, 2012

"All Roads Lead to Austen," by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Readers of this blog know how much I admire and love the work of Jane Austen. So I generally enjoy reading about others who also love Austen’s work. I recently read an unusual twist on this genre, “All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane” (Sourcebooks, 2012). It is a combination of a memoir, a travel book, a love letter to Austen, and a romance. The author, Amy Elizabeth Smith, is an English professor specializing in Austen, so the book is clearly informed by that background, but is written for general readers rather than for academics. Smith decides to take her sabbatical/study leave year to travel through Mexico, Central America, and South America, visiting six countries in all. She studies Spanish in Guatemala, teaches a class for American students abroad at a Chilean university, and sightsees. But her main unifying theme and activity is holding a series of reading groups, at least one in each country, each focusing on one of Austen’s novels (read in Spanish translation). The sessions are held in Spanish, and the members of the groups vary quite a bit in age, education, social class, and sophistication about literature. Some of Smith’s best-laid plans go astray, as members are added to or drop out of groups, dates are changed, locations are changed, and some participants do not finish the assigned books. She learns to go with the flow and accept these changes. Her main goal is to find out whether Austen’s novels, characters, and themes are understood and enjoyed in the same way everywhere, or whether they are mediated by national, cultural, and language factors. Her conclusion is that some aspects are universal and some are in fact culturally determined. She writes in a lively manner about each group and each locale, as well as about the people she meets, the adventures and misadventures she has, and her own feelings about her travels and project. She has a light and often humorous touch in her writing, but always with great respect and appreciation for her participants. And oh, by the way, do you remember I mentioned “romance”? Yes, the author experiences some romance during her trip, with a happy ending….what could be more like an Austen novel?

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