Book Chat: All Roads Lead to Austen

— Hannah Lee

I’ve finished All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith and I’m in love!  This memoir details the author’s sabbatical from teaching English literature.  Giving herself a final creative project as assigned to her students, Smith traveled to six countries in Latin America and led reading groups on Jane Austen’s novels.

I learned that Chilean Spanish is the hardest accent to master and Buenos Aires is the best city for booklovers. Smith’s difficulty in adjusting to the different accents in the six countries reminded me that my elder daughter had great language pedagogy in high school, where each teacher had an accent from a different part of the Spanish-speaking Americas. When the author first referred to herself as estadounidense, I thought she was mocking herself, but this is now the way to say you’re from the United States. In high school, I’d learned to identify myself as, americana or de Estado Unidos, but a politically neutral phrase has evolved in the 34 years since I’ve studied the language.

More after the jump.
Last year, my book group read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz and we were disappointed. (No, we’re not members of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America, and we do read other authors.)  That book offered hardly any new insight for us and we disliked how the author disparaged his family and friends in print, although we noticed that he’d waited until his father had passed away.

In Smith’s memoir, she traveled to six Latin-American countries — Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina — where by intent or by happenstance, she found readers to discuss Austen’s novels.  What is marvelous to me is that people from humble backgrounds had just as much insight into Austen’s motivations and her characters as those of the literati.  What was delightful to Smith was finding that readers in Latin America had just as much a visceral response to Austen’s writing as her students in California.  Austen does translate well into Spanish-speaking America!  

The Latin-American readers all connected to the “believable happiness” of Austen’s protagonists, where they “all find love, but it’s embedded in situations we can identify with: money woes; frustrating relatives; unavoidable personality clashes.”  Smith recorded arguments in Spanish over the characters, including the loud one by the Chilean readers over the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, because it was the most implausible liaison of the Austen heroines.

Smith discovered to her dismay how often and quickly she made assumptions about the people she encountered in each country — and she met her own SeƱor Darcy.  If every one of us can learn to withhold judgment of others, then it would be a worthy journey of the soul.

Travel as transformation is depicted in The Tao of Travel, edited by Paul Theroux, in which Mark Twain is quoted thus:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.