Travelling with Jane

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  --Miriam Beard

It’s not every day we get the chance to take a year off just to travel abroad and read, but Amy Smith gets to do exactly this, and she writes about her experiences in All Roads Lead to Austen:  A Yearlong Journey with Jane.  Smith teaches in a small Californian college.  When she takes her sabbatical, she decides to spend the time travelling in Latin America and running book groups with the locals in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina.  Each group reads a novel by Jane Austen.  Even though Smith shows us the differences between the people and cultures, she also points out that in spite of their idiosyncrasies and cultural assumptions, each is able to relate to Austen's works.

Austen wrote about 200 years ago and yet, there is something universal in her novels that we respond to even now.  Smith shows us that you don’t have to be a native English speaker to identify with Austen’s depictions of relationships, marriages, character and personality, and the daily life of women in the early 1800s.  In the six countries she visits, Smith arranges book groups for the novels Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.  In each country, the readers come up with connections to Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor and Marianne.

Not only does Smith show us each country’s people through the lens of Austen, but she also gives us some great descriptions of the countries she visits and of the pleasures and perils of travelling in Latin America.  She brushes up on her Spanish in Antigua; comes down with dengue in Puerto Vallarta; feeds iguanas in Guayaquil; runs away from protests in Santiago; stays in an infamous hotel room in Asunción; and shops at bookstore after bookstore in Buenos Aires.  (I admit, I was jealous of her bookstore ventures!)  And true to an Austen novel, by the end of the book, she gets married to a man she meets on her trip.  Since I can’t run away to Latin America for a year, it was fun to travel vicariously through Amy Smith.

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