A Jane Austen Education Made Me Want to Be a Better Commenter
Bill Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education has a premise as clever as anything Austen herself wrote. He believes that the true point of her novels was to teach life lessons. Her famously charming dialogue and finely drawn satirical characters are tools to get the reader to react emotionally in a way that will help her learn what's really important.
By relating episodes from his life to Austen's six completed novels, Deresiewicz tries to mirror her technique. He's not only explaining how he reacted to and grew with each book, but trying to make the reader react as well.
He begins the book with Emma, and the notion that Austen meant for him to dislike Emma, then realize he was a lot like her in his narrow assumptions and manipulations.
And that was when I finally understood what Austen had been up to all along. Emma's cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen's ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face.
I know I'm supposed to get indignant about the boorish Bill he presents early in the book, so his own growth can mirror that of Austen's characters, who suddenly realize that their behavior needs correcting.
The problem is that Deresiewicz must limit himself to one character -- himself. In doing so, he commits a writer's sin that Austen never, never does: He makes his protagonist unlikeable. It's hardly Deresiewicz's fault that he can't charm like Lizzy, provoke sympathy like Elinor, and amuse like Emma -- after all, they're some of the greatest characters in fiction -- but I felt a lack of sparkle, and wasn't drawn to root for him.
And so while I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of him -- that I greatly esteem, that I like Deresiewicz, I cannot in the end come to an understanding with this book that is perfectly amiable and open.
But I did come away with a life lesson of my own. It came to me in my favorite chapter, about my least favorite book: Mansfield Park. Deresiewicz tells us that by divorcing charming from good in the protagonist, Fanny Price, he makes the reader choose which is more important. We're meant to learn from Fanny's sweet example.
But my lesson came from her cousin Edmund. Deresiewicz points out that, finding her in tears, Edmund acted kindly, noting her homesickness and inviting her to "walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters."
He goes on to observe,
Austen was not a novelist for nothing; she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories -- entering into their feelings, validating their experiences -- is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness.
And those are the words that inspired me. They made me want to read more, to comment more, to enter more fully into the lives of those around me by the kindness that is listening.