I Still Don't Like Jane Austen (But William Deresiewicz Amuses Me)
I've always hated Jane Austen novels. It's the non-conformist in me. So many of my girlfriends worshiped her growing up -- seriously, two of my best friends sewed themselves period dresses and bonnets to attend the first showing of Pride and Prejudice -- that I was practically obligated to despise her. So when I saw William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education I was interested because hey, I'm a decade older and hopefully wiser and if my only reason for hating Austen is because everyone else likes her, well then... (Please note that I have read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion so it's not like my opinion is totally baseless.)
Deresiewicz skewers my first assumption right from the beginning. Turns out that lots of people don't like Austen and think her books are boring, trite and stuffy -- just like I did. Take that, high-school self! He too started out by dismissing the English grand dame of the novel in favor of modernist fare. But then he read Emma and fell head over heels in love with her. It gets worse: he thinks Elizabeth Bennet is the epitome of perfect womanhood.
A Jane Austen Education is organized into 6 chapters -- each based around what life lessons Deresiewicz learned from one of Austen's novels. I enjoyed his openness and candor in speaking about his life even though our formative experiences couldn't have possibly been more different. I found myself starting to snooze every time he switched from talking about his life to quoting Austen though.
Until I got to the second to last chapter on Persuasion. This is my mother's favorite book. I've read it twice and liked it less each time. It's the kind of book that makes me want to grab the heroine by the shoulders and scream "WILL YOU JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY?!" This book would be 5 pages long if Anne would just have a decent conversation. With anyone. Although perhaps that is not how it was done then.
But Deresiewicz made me see Persuasion through his eyes and it almost makes me want to read it again. He describes it as the anti-romance novel which frankly is a sentiment I can get behind. I haven't done it yet -- even though I now have the Penguin Classics Jane Austen The Complete Novels (thanks!) -- but I'm really tempted.