A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz
Reading this book was a bittersweet experience for me. This is not necessarily the author’s heart, as this book belongs to a genre of literature that looks at the novels of Jane Austen as being a model of or guide to life and personal development . The bittersweetness comes from the fact that the author is someone who can be easily identified with–a callow chronological snob who looks down on women’s lit, only to find himself deeply changed as a result of deep reading, who finds a great deal of painful reflection within his reading in light of life experiences, and who wins up married to someone at least indirectly to Jane Austen. My own deep fondness for Jane Austen notwithstanding, my own life has not had the sort of happy ending this one offers, where the last lines of the novel reveals the success of the author in a way that would not be out of place in an Austenesque contemporary romance: “That first week she came to Brooklyn, the visit that sealed our fate, she brought along a book, just in case there was some downtime. She knew I was a graduate student by that point, but she had no idea what I studied or whom I was writing my dissertation about. It was just the thing she happend to be reading at the time. The book was Pride and Prejudice. Reader, I married her (255).”
As one might expect from the author’s subtitle, this book is divided into six chapters that cover slightly more than 250 pages of material. The author begins his Austen education by being assigned to read Emma. At first he is bored by its seeming triviality but then he realizes that Austen was making a revolutionary statement about the importance of the ordinary in her work through the novel, and he begins to respect Austen for her insights. Then the author turns to Pride and Prejudice and finds its message about growth through learning from one’s mistakes to be deeply inspiring. After this the author turns to Northanger Abbey to learn that a life of endless adventure comes from staying awake and renouncing certainty and the comfort of easy cynicism. Reading Mansfield Park provides useful advice that being entertained is not being happy and that true friends are those who are willing to listen to us unburden ourselves of our stories. Persuasion provides a reminder to be honest with one’s friends, and finally Sense And Sensibility gives lessons in what it means to grow up and leave the myths and illusions of romance behind. The book combines thoughtful literary analysis with more than a touch of memoir as the author comes of age and reaches maturity in part through the subtle lessons of Jane Austen in her novels.
This book is a considerable achievement for a variety of reasons. For one, the author gives a great deal of personal, even confessional, detail about his own personal life and family background and his own struggles to grow up into a decent gentleman. There is a wide variety of material about Jane Austen written, perhaps unsurprisingly, by and for women, but this book demonstrates the enduring value of Jane Austen’s novels for contemporary men, and that is an area that is comparatively less focused on as a book. In stark contrast to many of the books I happen to read for which I am not a target audience, this book is one that has readers like me precisely in mind, namely those who enjoy literature and have perhaps a certain cynical bent but are ultimately interested in success in life and relationships and who have no qualms about learning from good literature where it may be found. This is not a book that entangles the readers in fancy language, but rather one that examines questions of character, of integrity and honesty and a willingness to be open to experience and enjoying community where it may be found. Those who take Jane Austen seriously and share the goals of high character will find much to praise here, even if the lessons are sometimes embarrassing to go through.
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