"An illuminating insight...fascinating."—Amanda Grange, bestselling author of Mr. Darcy's Diary
"A journey through both a physical landscape and the geography of the human heart and mind...delightfully entertaining and often deeply moving, this book reminds us that Austen's world—and her characters—are very much alive."—Michael Thomas Ford, author of Jane Bites Back
WHERE DO BOOKS TAKE YOU?
With a suitcase full of Jane Austen novels en español, Amy Elizabeth Smith set off on a yearlong Latin American adventure: a traveling book club with Jane. In six unique, unforgettable countries, she gathered book-loving new friends— taxi drivers and teachers, poets and politicians— to read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.
Whether sharing rooster beer with Guatemalans, joining the crowd at a Mexican boxing match, feeding a horde of tame iguanas with Ecuadorean children, or tangling with argumentative booksellers in Argentina, Amy came to learn what Austen knew all along: that we're not always speaking the same language— even when we're speaking the same language.
But with true Austen instinct, she could recognize when, unexpectedly, she'd found her own Señor Darcy.
All Roads Lead to Austen celebrates the best of what we love about books and revels in the pleasure of sharing a good book— with good friends.
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About the Author
Amy Elizabeth Smith has an undergraduate degree in music and a masters and PhD in English. She teaches writing and literature (including a course on Jane Austen) at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She loves traveling, dancing, classic cinema, and watching squirrel videos on YouTube.
Read an Excerpt
Jane Austen just won't stay on the page.
I enjoy everything I teach at a small university in California, but I especially love my Jane Austen course. The students and I read her novels together, discuss Austen's historical context, and explore the amazing ways Austen keeps coming to life through sequels, updates, and spin-offs—Bridget Jones, Bollywood, zombies, and all. Instead of writing final papers, students do Austen projects that we showcase in December at a public Jane Austen Night bash. We've had Northanger Abbey in rhymed heroic couplets, a short play with the Dashwood sisters transformed into gay brothers, a sign language lesson using Austen plots, and my favorite, a marriage of Kafka and Austen: Emmamorphasis, wherein Emma wakes up one fine day as a giant cockroach (just imagine what her exoskeleton does to her best muslins!).
Austen moves her readers. Semester after semester, when my students talk about Austen's novels, they transition seamlessly between their own lives and Austen's fictional world. "My sister is such an uptight Elinor, she makes me crazy!" somebody will always say after we start Sense and Sensibility. Or, "Yeah, I've met a Willoughby or two." Or with endless variations, "Marianne needs a serious dope slap." By the end of each semester I can compile a list of the most smackable characters from student feedback: topping the charts are always Marianne, both Eltons from Emma, John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey, and of course, Mrs. Bennet.
Students just don't react this way to novels I teach in other classes, such as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Austen's postmortem rivals wrote great novels, but not a single student has read Emily or Charlotte Brontë and reported back to the class, "That Heathcliff is just like my ex-boyfriend," or "Rochester's wife reminds me of my aunt," or "Somebody ought to pop Jane Eyre a good one!" Not once. Brontë 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, even give a few verbal wedgies. Or a dope slap.
It's not only my students who react this way to Austen. After a rough divorce, my friend Larry, a fellow native Pennsylvanian, went into an emotional tailspin. He ditched his job and, out of the blue, retrained as a railroad engineer. This led to long hours in hotel rooms between runs, either brooding alone or phoning me for where-did-it-go-wrong debriefs.
"You're an English teacher—what should I read?" he asked one evening, realizing we needed something to talk about other than his still-broken heart. "Would I like Jane Austen?"
Pride and Prejudice, her best-paced work, seemed a good recommendation for a man spending too much time staring out of train windows wondering how his marriage had gone off the rails. After a longer than usual silence, I got his first post-Austen call. "I liked it. Took a little getting used to the style, though," he said in his endearing Pittsburgh twang, à la "let's go daahntaahn 'n watch a Stillers game."
"You know," he went on, "I thought I married a Lizzy Bennet, but maybe I really picked a Lydia?" Well, so much for diverting him from divorce talk. As Larry made his way through all of Austen's novels—even Mansfield Park, whose heroine he dubbed the most "smackable" of all—our long conversations became populated by Emma, Captain Wentworth, Fanny Price, and others.
What is it about Jane Austen that makes us talk about the characters as if they're real people? People we recognize in our own lives, two centuries after Austen created them? When my first development leave from the university rolled around, I decided it was time for me to try my own Austen project, just like my students do. Something creative, something fun. So I got to wondering: 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?
Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of the most moving books I've ever read on how literature matters in people's lives. She covered six different authors with the same group of students in post-revolution Iran. Inspired, I decided to try a new twist. Why not read the same author but shift through six different countries, instead? Jane Austen reading groups, on the road.
Growing up, I envied Nancy Drew's jet-setting ways, which set me on a course to travel at every opportunity as an adult. I spent a year in Prague in the early 1990s, and since my brother Shawn has an even worse travel bug than my own, I've tagged along like a good little sister to visit him when he lived in Italy, then South Africa, then Egypt. With that year's leave from the university ahead of me, I wanted to explore new territory: Central and South America.
In Clueless, the nineties update of Austen's Emma, the heroine Cher offends her family's Salvadoran maid by assuming that anybody who speaks "Mexican" must be a Mexican. But Cher's no worse than the average clueless North American. Central and South Americans are our neighbors, but all too many of us can't tell one country from another south of the border. At work I'd met latinos and latinas from a host of countries I couldn't locate without studying a map.
So, on the road I could pick up some firsthand knowledge while seeing what Latin Americans would make of Jane Austen. Would they identify with her characters? Or maybe want to smack a few? Plus, I could find out who their Jane Austens were—which authors are beloved in Central and South America, which novels come to life off the pages. It would be a whole new world of books (and bookstores!).
Unfortunately, the only lesson I remembered from high school Spanish was that pero means "but" and perro, "dog." Thanks to my university's ties with a language school in the city of Antigua, I settled on Guatemala for both a warm-up and a starting point. The plan was to take five weeks of Spanish lessons during my winter break, then return in July to begin my "year with Jane" in earnest; I'd do my first reading group there.
The second country would let me mix business with pleasure. I'd made two short trips to Puerto Vallarta prior to cooking up my Austen project. In fact, maybe that influenced my planning—because in Mexico I'd met Diego, a cheerful, handsome taxi driver who also happened to be a booklover. We were both eager for a much longer visit. I wasn't a fan of long-distance relationships, but there was something special about Diego. I was willing to jump in and see how things might turn out.
For country number three, I decided on Ecuador, where I could visit a friend-of-a-friend in Guayaquil. The next and longest stop would be Chile. I signed on to teach with a study abroad program for a semester in Santiago, where I was sure I could find some interested Austen readers. After that I'd head for Paraguay to stay with another friend-of-a-friend. Even without a connection, who could resist a mysterious, allegedly dangerous place almost nobody can find on a map? For the big finale, I'd spend a month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I didn't know a soul there, but it seemed fitting that Jane Austen should wrap up her Latin American tour in the city many consider the literary capital of South America.
With five weeks in Antigua under my belt (and plenty of practice), I had a foundation for speaking Spanish. As I read and planned, I could see that each country would be unique, but the five-week language trip offered me a taste of what to expect. I walked the cobbled streets of a colonial Spanish city; I saw looming, active volcanoes; I heard marimba music at midnight; I learned to make my way through Conan the Barbarian stories in Spanish.
Come that May, there wasn't a student on campus more eager than I was to bolt. Was I nervous about spending a year away from family and friends, trying to function in a foreign language I had a tenuous grip on while convincing several dozen people in six different countries to join me for book groups? You bet. Was I excited about the trip anyway? You bet! When classes were done, I packed up my worldly goods and found new homes for my chickens—three Cochins, a white Silkie hen, and Nikolaus-Nikolaus, a strutting Frizzle rooster named after a stern German ancestor. Stopping through in Pennsylvania, I bought my mom a computer so we could use email along with phone calls; she's a worrier. And I visited my father's grave.
One evening a few years back, he'd set down the book he'd been reading and a heart attack took him fast, right there at home with the woman he'd loved for fifty years. The book was a novelization of Casablanca, a film he'd seen repeatedly, so as my dad slipped away, he wasn't even troubled with any nagging questions about how it would all turn out. To me, that's kind of a big deal. Unless I go in my sleep, I fully expect to be dragged off to eternity with at least three half-read books around somewhere, wryly wondering the genre-appropriate version of "Damnation, whodunit?!"
Raised by booklovers, I'll be a booklover 'til the end. In fact, now that I'm back from Latin America, I regret only one thing connected with my year's travels—that my father, the man who built me my first bookshelves, won't get to meet the devoted reader I'm about to marry, someone who played a role in my Austen adventure. Diego from Mexico? Maybe. Maybe not. But I will say this: as Austen fans know, when Austen's in the picture, somebody's going to end up hitched.
My dad would have loved my fiancé's sense of humor and his insight. After I'd returned to the States and was talking to some people about the book groups I'd done, one of them frowned and said, "That was superimposing European literature on those people, you know." The man didn't outright call me a Yankee Imperialist Pig-dog, but that seemed to be the subtext. When I passed this comment on to my fiancé, he was both annoyed and amused.
"Sounds like he's confusing you with the CIA in the 1970s," he said. "So latina cultures are so feeble that we can't enjoy a Jane Austen novel without our literary world collapsing? Somebody needs to learn a bit about Latin America."
Austen was a fan of not making assumptions—of avoiding prejudices—of making sure you're reading a situation (or a person or a place) very carefully. She never set foot outside of England, but what she has to teach about astute reading applies across time, across borders, and even, as I came to learn, across languages.
I wish I could say that I never made any gaffes of my own while traveling, that I never brought too much old baggage to new places or into relationships with people I met. But thanks to bad judgment (and at times, bad Spanish), I wound up in quite a few bonehead situations. Like fleeing from a ghost in a Mexican bookshop—putting a scare, myself, into some unfortunate Ecuadorians in a grocery store—fending off an amorous senior citizen in a Chilean laundry room—and on one stellar occasion, barely escaping a good hard soaking from a police water cannon.
Fate stepped in at times too, independent of my own blunders, to deal some painful surprises. I struggled for months with the most serious illness of my life, much to my poor mother's distress. I made it through—but not all of the smart, warm, incredible new friends I met along the road were still around by the time I reached the end of it.
Yet, as Austen well knew, life's challenges and sorrows help us appreciate what goes right. No amount of stumbling on my part could spoil the pleasures of drinking rooster beer in Guatemala; of floating in the gentle sea at Puerto Vallarta; of feeding a hoard of tame iguanas in an Ecuadorian park; of seeing the snowcapped Andes in Chile; of riding a rocking horse in a Paraguayan nightclub; of watching seductive Argentineans tango on a narrow street in Buenos Aires on a chilly afternoon.
In every country I visited, I had the pleasure of not just learning but living a new language, along with the nerdy fun of browsing bookstore after Spanish-language bookstore. And the Austen reading groups—each so different from the others, each letting me see Austen in surprising, enlightening, amazing new ways. On top of it all, I wound up with a nice old-fashioned happy ending, one that still leaves me and my fiancé marveling at our own dumb luck for having crossed paths in the first place.
It was a wonderful year, mistakes and all. The funny thing is, I made my very biggest mistake before I even hit the road: I set off on my travels thinking of myself as a teacher, just because that's how I earn a living.
So clueless. What a lot I had to learn.
Table of Contents
GUATEMALA: Girls' Night Out
MEXICO: Sense in the Land of Sensibility
ECUADOR: Pride, Prejudice, and Tame Iguanas
CHILE: Austen in the Andes
PARAGUAY: Assumptions and Asunción
ARGENTINA: Last Tango in Highbury
The End and the Beginning
Reading Group Guide
About the Author