Humble and Simple Lessons in A Jane Austen Education from an Initially Unlikeable Character (Spoilers!)
I have to confess that I didn't actually enjoy A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. The very title is ponderous! I did slog through the material and found that the best strategy for me was tackling each mini-essay on its own, set the book down, walk away, and come back later. In a digression, I think that the reason I found the book so hard to read is because it didn’t entertain me like the fiction books I’m used to reading; I don’t think that was Mr. Deresiewicz’s main or secondary goal. Instead, this is a memoir-slash-self-help book aimed at an individual that Mr. Deresiewicz truly painted as a horrible person: himself. He thoroughly makes it hard to identify with him or engage with him throughout each section all the way up to the end where I found myself thinking, “Huh... I do that, too.” In a way, he was my Jane Austen without the Jane Austen.
Let’s back up, though, and let me explain the format of this BlogHer Book Club selection. The memoir is broken into six parts detailing how Mr. Deresiewicz grew into a (supposed) better person after his dissection of and immersion in literature via graduate school and specifically how six Jane Austen titles changed his entire life. I say (supposed) better person because Mr. Deresiewicz doesn’t go into detail about the person he has become, but rather details the dislikable person he was and how each Jane Austen novel provoked a slow discovery ending in an epiphany about his life. I found that this subtly followed one of the lessons Mr. Deresiewicz learned (and detailed in the section “Falling in Love”) that some things just aren’t the reader’s business and are too private, but once again I’m getting ahead of myself.
(Warning: Do not read ahead if you don’t want summarized spoilers of the content!)
The first section of the memoir covers Emma and the concept of the very simple every day “particulars” that truly make up a life. I followed along very well during this section since I have been trying in the past six years to really focus on the minute details of each day, making each last, as I raise my children to be happy people. I have found that the more I take simple enjoyment in the day-to-day of the people and physical world surrounding me, the happier I am. I try to teach my children that sometimes taking a moment to watch a mama duck waddling across the street with her babies or truly listening to the story of a friend can really make the difference in brightening up the day. As Mr. Deresiewicz put it, “To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes” (p. 31). It’s a great reminder.
Pride and Prejudice, a novel that has always seemed unapproachable to me, is the inspiration for the second section about growing up. Mr. Deresiewicz brings home again and again that the development of good character is a function of growing up and that individuals will have to make mistakes in order to be able to facilitate that development. He emphasizes that mistakes are part of the process, “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world” (p. 57). Here, I paused and I thought to myself: It’s not? It’s not. This simple idea is one that I struggle with nearly every day. Making mistakes. Is not. The end. Of the world. In fact, making mistakes is more like the development of the world –- your world, your character, your life, your essence.
In the third section, Mr. Deresiewicz faces Northhanger Abbey and learns how to learn. This was truly one of the most dry of the sections for me, but it was still thought-provoking. What I actually took out of this section was the idea that anyone can teach you something and sometimes you have to let your barriers down and humble yourself in order to learn the lesson.
Mansfield Park teaches Mr. Deresiewicz about being good in the fourth section. I also struggled with this section that seemed mostly an emphasis on common courtesy and respect for others, a reoccurring theme throughout several sections of the memoir.
The fifth section remarks upon Persuasion and true friends. I was most struck by the idea presented that a true friend not only will admit when he or she is wrong, but will also be willing to tell the other person when he or she is also wrong. Mr. Deresiewicz points out that this flies “so strongly in the face of what we believe about friendship today” (p. 194). I agree with him and hope that as I build my community of friends, I also am finding people who are willing to stand up to and for me for my welfare and my benefit. I hope that I can be that person for each member of my community as well.
Sense and Sensibility is covered in the sixth section detailing falling in love. I really related to this section as I, too, have my “Edward.” I watch so many of my friends and relatives long for the explosive love that doesn’t last (so much so that one of my relatives has been married and divorced many times looking for that elusive amazing knight-in-shining-armor and Romeo-Juliet love) and I just want to shake them and scream that you start with liking your mate’s character and then you learn to love them. Love at first sight with no actual base grounded in friendship, communication, and mutual attachment and esteem rarely leads to a long-term effective relationship. Perhaps I’ll start giving this memoir away as a gift with this section Post-It-noted (yes, that’s my dry sense of humor).
In the end, Mr. Deresiewicz apparently redeemed himself enough with his extensive life learning-via-Austen to reinvent himself with a good character that others could esteem and create a community of friends AND snag a girl whom he eventually married. And, as mentioned above, true to Austen he left most of the details out. Some things, indeed, should be private. And, in the end, one of the most important things that William Deresiewicz reminded me of is that I do not always have to be highly entertained and instantly enamored to learn something lasting, strong, and immense. There is quite the simple joy in that learning.
Completely to your credit, Mr. Deresiewicz, I will be reading these six Jane Austen novels (for the first time) and then I’ll be re-reading your book so that I can ponder again the ideas that you presented. Therefore, I must say a quiet, simple, and humble, “Thank you.”