Taking the Lessons in A Jane Austen Education To Heart
I was so excited to read A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, because books about books are right up my alley. One of my most treasured possessions is my volume of Jane Austen's complete works, not only because of the inscription my beloved grandmother wrote in it, but also because Austen's novels are perfectly my style. Deresiewicz's take also turned out to be a great read for me.
The concept is simple: he dedicates a chapter to each of Austen's six novels and discusses what major theme each one taught him during the formative years of his life in graduate school when he first read them. The lessons he learns are important ones about living life, growing up, learning to learn, becoming a person of character, real friendship, and true love. Deresiewicz discusses how Austen teaches these lessons through her characters, and he intertwines these literary discussions with examples from his own life.
Although at times I felt like I was reading an academic paper, the material is certainly approachable and the lessons great. I couldn't disagree with any of it. Having read four of Austen's six novels, I can say that A Jane Austen Education is much easier to grasp if one is familiar with her stories, but it isn't by any means necessary. Also, Deresiewicz doesn't come straight out and spoil the endings, but they are implied. He's made me want to read those last two sooner rather than later, but I also kind of know what's going to happen in them now.
I loved learning more about Jane Austen, and this book made me view her novels from a different angle. I personally took the lessons to heart, and each one hit home in a different way. To highlight just one example, the chapter that probably stood out the most to me was the one on Mansfield Park, the author's least favorite of Austen's novels. In it he discusses what it means to be a person of substance, and how to treat the people around us with respect. As a nurse in a busy cancer clinic, I see new people all the time and I'm tempted to rush through my day without stopping to consider their point of view. But as Deresiewicz says, "People's stories are the most personal thing they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them." I'm reminded to take time out of my work day to just talk to my patients, and sometimes that brings greater healing than the medicines I give them.
Overall I certainly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary nonfiction, but especially to Jane Austen lovers. It didn't exactly change my life, but it made me stop and examine it.