All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Professor Smith establishes her ethos as a storyteller from the earliest moments of this story. Her task involves answering the question: “the special connection that people feel with Austen’s world, this Austen magic—would it happen with people in another country, reading Austen in translation?” (xi) I could certainly relate to the author in her dedication of her work to her “fabulous, understanding mother and the memory of” her father. Before she ventures off to Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina, she gets her mom a computer (for e-mails) and visits her father’s grave (xiii). When Smith talks later about catching up with her mom on the phone, she says: “Hearing her voice . . . made me happy” (320). I know the feeling! Sounds like a nice girl.

This book reads both as the story of a year in a woman’s life and as a travelogue. As she tells the stories, Smith includes analysis of language, discussion of Austen, and broader ideas of education and love. As such, All Roads Lead to Austen appeals on many levels. I learned more about the Spanish language (I had wondered why, for instance, the second part of the Spanish-language version of P and P is not capitalized), and Smith draws lines between the Austen and the Bronte schools: people feel they know “a Willoughby or two” but not “Rochester’s wife” (ix-x). As a result, the “Bronte World is to be viewed and enjoyed at a distance, but Austenland is a place where people feel inclined to get cozy with the locals” (x). I like that she justifies talking about love lives in school to learn Spanish—“all in the name of education—you’ve got to use a lot of Spanish vocabulary to describe people’s love lives”—just as my little group once did in Hebrew class (7). I found the discussions of the pace of life—eating, conversations, etc—fascinating. I often find myself rushing, but I love Austen, for whom Smith advises students to “slow things down . . . to open up to the elegant pace of her novels” (31). I also like the little pictures that accompany each chapter.

In Guatemala, Smith finds that the women do relate very well to P and P—same problems, emphasis on family and romance. The novel also provides an escape from “stories with blood and crime,” which they have “too much of” in their country (43). The Guatemalan women say that some kinds of pride are good and some bad (like assumptions about race: Maya—bad, Ladino—good) (45, 38). Reading about life in Guatemala also made me remember how grateful I am; in the U.S., we “see the military as there to support us, not oppress us,” the way the average Guatemalan sees the military there. Because there are more “sharply marked” gender roles in Guatemala, P and P “just might resonate on [even] more levels” there (52-53).

In Mexico, Smith teaches us about fotonovelas and the subgenres, as told cleverly via the prism of: what would each type of tale do with the Catherine Morland story? (63-65). Reading books for pleasure is different in this community, as is the noise on the streets, and the creatures that enter Smith’s home at all hours of day (lizards—both cuizas and garrobos) and night (bats) (74). She seems so at ease—even with bats flying through the house—that it was strangely comforting to see how uncomfortable she got at the boxing match, with the heat, the closely-packed bodies, and the alcohol-chugging pregnant woman. Until she gets sick.

In Ecuador, Smith is aided by a blond American transplant who married an Ecuadorian. Betsy organizes two reading groups with which Smith will work, one affectionately called Mrs. Gardiner; the other, Lady Catherine. I especially enjoyed Smith’s imagining of how Austen would respond to the “suffering artiste” mentality: “if one finds it so draining to write, a search for a more invigorating profession might be in order. Clergymen seem to live comfortably enough” (127).

I also enjoyed Smith’s self-reflection when she meets a group of people new to her (not all of whom are native Ecuadorians): “As for Fernanda, well, I’d never heard a single stereotype about Uruguayans, so I was forced to deal with her as a real live individual”—i.e., the way we should deal with everyone we meet! (132) A group of Ecuadorian women help Smith—who, in turn, helps us—see that, since “going off in a corner with a book is, on a basic level, a selfish act,” it is often difficult for women to make sure it happens—and we should be grateful for “anyone who’ll fight for the right to sit down with a good book” (164). She writes an interesting reflection on key differences between the reactions of the groups in Mexico and Guatemala, on the one hand, and Ecuador, on the other, largely as a result of education, opportunity, and class.

As a character in her own story, Smith sometimes seems a little flaky—she “lost the contact information Betsy had given her,” she doesn’t do much research even when she falls seriously ill, she even makes up a name and identity when Rafael introduces himself, and she heads into a Chilean riot to take a photo (153, 154). But she’s real, and she wants the real thing, even commenting on her own upbringing: “They say that negative parental role models can make relationships hard for people later in life—but I’m here to say that positive ones can be tough to live up to as well” (147). It’s also fun to watch her experience new books and new cultural norms. (In Chile, country #4, for instance, she learns from a colleague that university professors don’t date doormen, so if you say yes to coffee, he’ll assume you just want sex).  Smith draws connections among readers in all three Americas who are “taken with Austen’s emphasis on courtesy” (208).

Country #5 is Paraguay, about whose history she—and I—learned. There’s real cause for anger at the 1 percent in Asuncion, where a dictatorship and brutal war left the population a ghost of its former self, there are “lengthy curfews,” 77% of the land is owned by the 1%, and children are read fairy tales whose purpose seems to be to frighten them to obey their parents (and stay out of the jungle) (262, 265).

Throughout the five visits, there is a lot of build-up to Argentina. I had had no idea there were such stereotypes about Argentinians throughout the rest of Central and South America, but it was interesting to have Smith hear them in every country she visited and see some of them validated and some invalidated in country #6. I loved, of course, that in her efforts to throw together an Emma book group, she enlists a brooding man to whom she feels strangely drawn and three Jewish ladies (one of them the “petite blue-eyed blond” who works as a reference librarian)(296). Though I found all the reading groups stimulating in their own ways, the Argentinean group did offer, for me, the most sophisticated commentary on a work. A sampling: the structure of the sentences is deliberate because “in Austen’s day you’d savor a novel like this, page by page, for a month,” but the “weightiness” of style is balanced by “her use of short chapters,” which also help suggest that the story is “about little events” that “build on each other” (331-32). Mr. Woodhouse they deemed “almost sinister” because “he’s an absolute manipulator,” “so utterly passive that he’s active” (334-35). In terms of geography, “this small town . . . could be any small town anywhere,” which is why it resonates now, even thousands of miles away: “all of these things are what we’ll deal with as long as human beings exist” (336).

This group tackles the competing challenges of translating a work, cultural influences of the Spanish versus the French versus the British on Argentina, the link and lack thereof between economics and culture, and women’s rights. They do so with bald honesty. (I can hardly imagine following this discussion in a language not my own! Smith reminds us of her limitations, but somehow our experience never feels limited.) One woman says she didn’t like Austen before because she “was forced to read her too early. Austen really isn’t for fourteen-year-olds, you know” (337). I do know, actually. Much as I love her, unless I have reason to believe a student that age will “get it,” I usually do advise students to wait, and, if they’re not really strong independent readers, maybe to study one with an adult who knows it well before venturing off independently. I don’t think I do that with any other writer, but . . . an Austen novel is such a joyful experience, and I hate for them to miss the joy, or worse, to think there’s no joy to be had, and never go back.

Smith learns a lot on her journey, and so do readers, even about things we thought we already knew. (Case in point: “There is no way to say ‘I am’ or ‘I have’ in Hebrew,” Teresa teaches Smith (346). I must have known that, but I had never really contemplated the ramifications of that linguistic difference until Smith made me think about it in this way.) She was also struck by these key bits of understanding: 1) “People’s circumstances color how they respond to everything.” 2) In Latin America, someone from here should not say simply “I’m an American” to mean I’m from the United States—after all, “we’re all Americans” (360). And finally, 3) “I love teaching because I love learning, and none of us is a finished product” (360).

I’d love to see some professional development exploring THAT this fall.

Published in: on July 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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