Are book lovers in Latin America just as thrilled with Jane Austen's works as so many readers are in other parts of the world? That's what professor and Austen enthusiast Amy Elizabeth Smith wanted to find out.
Smith, a Pennsylvania native and professor at California's University of the Pacific, was partially inspired by Azar Nafisi's 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which the author related her clandestine book group meetings with seven female students.
Smith thought it would be interesting to read Austen's books, but with different groups of people. She decided to go on a yearlong Jane Austen Latin American odyssey, one that took her to six countries and brought on all kinds of experiences, including meeting her own Mr. Darcy. The result is her memoir, All Roads Lead to Austen, published by Sourcebooks and now available online and in stores.
In an interview with the International Business Times, Smith discussed Jane Austen's timelessness, overcoming language barriers, and the enduring appeal of Mr. Darcy.
How did the book groups come together once you were in a country?
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Each group was different -- the first one, in Guatemala, was made up of teachers from the language school where I began studying Spanish. The second one was organized by a local man I was dating in Puerto Vallarta [Mexico], who I'd met on a short vacation there prior to my year's travels. He's a taxi driver, and he invited some of his friends to join us to read Sense and Sensibility. The Ecuador group was organized by a friend-of-a-friend from California -- it was an ongoing book group that added Pride and Prejudice to their regular schedule. In Chile, I met with a group of poets who were friends of one of the people from the university where I taught for a semester in Santiago. In Paraguay, it was another group of friends-of-a-friend (the former mayor of the capital, Asunción). Buenos Aires was the best of all, in a way -- I arrived in Argentina with no connections at all, so I just wandered in and out of bookstores, inviting people to join me to read Emma. And it all worked out!
Did you have to overcome language barriers?
Prior to leaving, I took five weeks of immersion lessons in Guatemala. I found people really easy to deal with. My Spanish, of course, got better as the year went along. In Latin America, I had almost no trouble at all. They were willing to talk to me and help me out. They didn't act like it was an imposition.
Why are we still so interested in Jane Austen?
No matter which one you rank first, Austen's novels are all excellent. She holds up because her works are so subtle and her understanding of human nature really profound. She points out people's weaknesses in a way that's humorous but compassionate -- at least with her main characters, anyway. She really skewers some of the minor characters, and that's fun, too. She's also complicated enough that people can find really different messages in her works -- conservatives enjoy the old-fashioned values of her novels, while feminists see her as progressive for her time and subversive. There's enough going on in her works that she can be approached many different ways.
In your book, you write People who haven't read Austen often assume that her novels are all the same. Why do you think this is?
I think it has a lot to do with the movies. All they know about Austen is what they've seen on a movie poster.
What do you think of Jane Austen spin-off books and the authors who write them?
I think they're a lot of fun. I've definitely met academics who are horrified by this. To me, it's fan fiction. These people like Austen so much they want to try new scenarios. I don't have any problem with people adapting, even to the point of adding vampires. Students like talking about it, too. Sometimes, they can bring a new perspective that's creative and goes beyond just continuation. They look at the original story in a new way.
You recently wrote for the Huffington Post that, in terms of politics, Jane Austen today would be the equivalent of a Swing State. Are there any political issues you'd think she'd be especially passionate about?
I do think she'd be attentive to women's issues, definitely questions of education. I think Austen was a realist, which is why people keep reading the books. Austen was not in some kind of fantasy land. I think she was enough of a realist to not take a hard line on some political issues today. Sometimes, people can just be very black and white. I think she would sit down very carefully and weigh each one. She wouldn't be party line. I don't see that.
You ranked Austen's novels in the following order for Publishers Weekly: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park. What was your logic behind the ranking?
Mostly personal preference, partially the responses of my students over the years. There's no way to rank Austen's novels without making somebody howl in outrage, so I decided to just go for it.
Jane Austen and other authors of fiction have given us a range of heroes, but women seem to always want a Mr. Darcy. Why is he still such an appealing figure?
They always say you can't change a man, but Lizzy does change Darcy. His first proposal is actually pretty insulting -- basically, that she's beneath him, but he loves her anyway. Her refusal gets him to think hard about his behavior. Plus, there's just so much chemistry between those two. You just know they're not going to have a boring marriage. And there are a number of people against the marriage -- so that makes it all the more appealing that Lizzy gets to triumph over some serious snobs.
Can you tell us a bit about your own Mr. Darcy?
I don't want to give away too much because I discuss him in my book, but we met during my travels. I can say that my Spanish is a lot better now.
Is there anything in particular you'd like readers to get from your book?
I hope it makes people read Austen. I also hope it'll get people to think about Latin America and get an understanding of the other half of the hemisphere.