(Interview) William Deresiewicz on Jane Austen, Community and Love
William Deresiewicz, the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter answered some of our pressing questions on life, love and how he made some tough decisions on writing about people in his life in his memoir. Read what he thinks about the role of community in our lives and whether or not he really would have found love without Jane Austen's help.
Your grad school dissertation was about community, particular in novels like Jane Austen's. While Jane Austen lived in the era of balls and sitting rooms, we live in the age of the Internet. In her day we were limited by geography, today we can sit at our computers and chat with people on the other side of the world in real-time. Do you think that technology has made it easier to find community?
Yes and no. It has certainly made it easier for us to find community in the modern world. It has bridged the isolation that came with suburban life, television, people moving from place to place -- all the things that disrupted traditional communities like Austen’s in the first place. But in her day, they had a kind of community that was more intense and more intimate than anything we can imagine. You didn’t have to find community, then: It was all around you, all the time. You were enmeshed, for good or ill (and it’s definitely both, in her novels), with pretty much the same few relatives and neighbors your whole life. The sense of connectedness and togetherness -- of being present in one another’s lives -- that kind of face-to-face community gave people is far beyond anything we have a chance to experience today. The Internet gives us a sense of community, but in Austen’s day they had actual communities.
In your chapter on Northanger Abbey you say that you realized that you realized that you could get older, but still remain young. The phrase "young at heart" comes to mind. What does it mean to you to feel young?
Staying young at heart is certainly important and certainly something that Austen helped to teach me. Novels like Northanger Abbeyand Emmaand Pride and Prejudiceare playful, exuberant, lighthearted. But what I really learned from her about staying young has to do with being young at mind. Staying young, for her, means keeping your eyes open, resisting the inevitable temptation to see in the world -- in other people, in a political argument, even in the view from your window -- what you already expect to find. It means staying open to the possibility that life can take you by surprise -- and most importantly, that you can take you by surprise. Staying young means seeing yourself as a work in progress, recognizing that there is always more inside you -- more thoughts, more feelings, more talents and powers -- than you have found so far.
All memoirists and bloggers have to make tough decisions about who to talk about and how. You write openly about some of your New York friends and how your opinion about them changed. Did you struggle with the decision to write about them?
It was definitely difficult at first. The whole process of writing about myself was difficult, and the reason I did it is that I knew that the only genuine way of talking about the lessons I learned from Jane Austen was to talk about how I learned them, how my own life was transformed by them. That meant I had to be honest, about myself as well as the people who were part of my story. And neither of those was easy. I definitely felt bad about exposing people I used to be friends with, but the key words there are “used to be.” The reasons I’m not friends with them anymore are the exact things I talk about in the book. Still, I was careful not to use names or describe people in a way that would allow them to be identified.
In your chapter about Pride and Prejudice, you said that for Jane Austen growing up means making mistakes. What's the best worst mistake you've made?
Well, it’s important to be clear what mistake means. We’ve all done things that seemed like mistakes at the time but that turned out to be great strokes of fortune, great intuitive decisions -- in fact, I think we all take a lot of pride in moments like that. That’s not what Austen was talking about. She was talking about choices or actions or assumptions that really were bad, but that you ended up learning from if you were strong enough to own up to what you did. I think for me the biggest one, the best one, was just what I talk about in that chapter. The summer I read Pride and Prejudice, I was in love with a young woman who refused to go out with me, even though she liked me in a lot of ways, because I couldn’t stop myself from being arrogant and condescending around her. She wasn’t the first person to call me on my stuff, but because she mattered so much to me, she was the first one to get through. It was that pain -- that humiliation, that loss, that grief -- that finally got me moving in the right direction.
Do you think you would know yourself the way you do now without Jane Austen? Do you think you would have still found love?
That’s a tough question. The easy answer would be to say, sure, I would have learned those lessons some other way. But I’m really not certain that’s true. She taught me things I don’t think I’ve ever come across in other writers and don’t think I would have figured out on my own: how to pay attention to the people in my life, how to step back from my own feelings, what it means to fall in love. I certainly see a lot of people around me, to be frank, who haven’t manage to learn those lessons. So I’m not sure I would’ve really grown up without her, and her whole idea -— this is what I talk about the book, and in fact, it’s the story I tell about myself in the book -— is that you can’t fall in love until you’ve grown up. So no, I’m not at all certain that I would’ve found love. I might just have continued having a long series of unsatisfying and fundamentally immature relationships, and I would’ve gone on wondering what was wrong.
Our thanks to Bill Deresiewicz for answering our questions about writing and the life lessons he learned from Jane Austen.
Have you learned lessons from Jane Austen and Willian Deresiewicz? Or maybe another author? Tell us about them in the comments! Read reviews of Bill's book and see how Penguin designs its book covers at BlogHer Book Club.