Book Review: A Jane Austen Education

A Jane Austen Education – How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

“Like Elizabeth Bennet, I had found my freedom.” – William Deresiewicz

This book is the type of read that makes you go “Why didn’t I think of it like that?”. It is not only gorgeous on the cover (who doesn’t love paper dolls?) and offers plenty of new and personal insights into how you can interpret the works of Austen, but is gorgeous on the inside too. I found a slight battered hardback version for about $5 at my local haunt Basement Books in Central Station, Sydney. You can also pick it up from Amazon for under $20 (and get the wonderful sneak preview read).

Mixing academic writing, textual analysis and a lovely running commentary on Jane Austen set within an autobiographical framework this is a different take on being a Janeite. Deresiewicz, an Austen scholar, explains from the start that he was once a cynic of Austen’s work (and a bit of a self-admitted pretentious git) because of the ‘girly’ connotations surrounding books such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but after reading them and studying them – breaking through the tedium – it dawned on him just what it is that Jane is saying, and why she is as intelligent and interesting as the rest of us think. This book spans his life from student-hood onwards and ends like a Jane novel would.

The book is structured with each novel to describe a different part of his life, and with each comes a lesson. I will leave it for you to read to uncover the many lessons Jane taught him, however Pride and Prejudice is explained to have instructed him on “growing up” which, to me, is a fairly interesting observation in itself. He explains, situating himself in the preparation for a big “academic endurance test” in the third year of graduate school in which he had to read an obscene number of books in a short space of time, “And one of those days, about halfway through the summer, I very suddenly, and very unexpectedly, fell in love. The object of my infatuation, of course, was Elizabeth Bennet.” He explained that this love, that we all feel for Lizzy, was due to her exuberance, her wit, that she is the type of character who “makes you feel more alive just by being around.”

Pride and Prejudice does make you fall deep into the way Lizzy thinks. Because she is such an attractive, amusing character we immediately identify and want to be her, or at least her friend (!), and as such view things the way that she does. He explains that as Lizzy has to realise her faults through the book in turn Jane Austen asks us to view ourselves, and as a result we start to grow up and understand our feelings and faults.

Another P&P lesson learned in the book: Mistakes are normal. Learn from them. Sometimes being wrong is more valuable and sometimes your ego needs to take a step down for this to happen. This can be enforced, and you may end up humiliated. Guess what – it’s probably good for you.

By growing through suffering and understanding, we are led through Deresiewicz’s life. He is blatant about his own poor performance in relationships, his feelings of isolation and the times when he has gone with high-flying friends that were fake but for a while made him feel right. All the way through, Jane Austen explained through her novels about social interactions, why the minutiae is important (Emma – the first novel he read that he found so tedious, before moving on to the gripping Pride and Prej) and why friends are the family you choose (Persuasion).

An interesting and unexpected part of this P&P chapter is where we see it compared with Jane Eyre (due to a study choice that involved picking either Pride and Prej or the Bronte classic). For those of us that are quite widely integrated with the online Janeite community and read across the sites, and may even be fans of the Brontes on the side, there is some intense rivalry that is quite apparent between the two camps. As he puts it “In Pride and Prejudice, reason triumphs over feeling and will. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s own typically romantic coming-of-age story, emotion and ego overcome all obstacles. Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn’t imagine how you could stand to read anything so immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn’t believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. Our choices, of course, reflected our personalities.” What can I say? I adore this explanation of the two camps (as debatable as his reasoning may be here). I have always viewed Austen as practical, down-to-earth and knowledgable. While she understands and believes in emotions and love, she doesn’t believe that they are everything nor should dictate your behaviour. Passion still exists within Austen.

He manages to intertwine quotes from Jane’s letters, information from biographer Claire Tomalin and other background information on texts (e.g. The Watsons) really nicely. His parallels between the books, his life and Austen’s life are interesting and honest. I don’t know if the fact that this is a male perspective makes a great deal of difference (I have been asked that in the process of reading it) but I think that he approaches Jane with a different sense of reverence. To us, she is a sister, an Aunt, a confidante. To him, as a literary student, teacher and so on, she is an author (first and foremost) and a text. She only becomes a person by the time Persuasion is explored (second to last novel discussed in the book) and even then it is kept quite factual, and not as imaginative as many of us become.

The only main pitfall with this book was some serious parental loathing that I felt uncomfortable reading after several pages (there’s only a small amount of parent bashing you can get away with unless your David Pelzer or something) as well as lengthy re-hashing of each books plot. Honestly, I don’t think people who haven’t read the Austen novels (at least most) would choose this book in the first place, and even with paraphrasing I don’t think it would make sense to them regardless. In that sense, if Deresiewicz had identified his audience from the out (Janeites?) then he might be in a better area. If it is aimed at those who are being forced to read Austen and looking for some sympathy then I’m still not sure he has hit the mark. Regardless, despite this confusion over audience-intent, I found the book entertaining and the reflections on the books fresh and original. And that, to me, is what I really like to see in any Austen-related books (fan fiction or otherwise).

It’s sort of like reading an extended one-man book club (and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all) So… what did you think of it? Who do you think it is aimed at?

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1 Comment

Filed under A good find, Book Review, Discussion

One response to “Book Review: A Jane Austen Education

  1. Stephen

    I got here by listening to an extract from the audio version of this book an The Book Report radio show on http://bookreportradio.com. Deresiewicz has made me interested in reading his book abd all of the Jane Austin novels. I love listening to The Book Report because it broadens my horizons.

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