A Jane Austen Education Falls Flat
On paper, A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz is exactly the kind of book I should have loved. Like the author, I was an English major who could be pretty condescending and arrogant, especially in my early 20s when I was living in Manhattan. And like him, I often identified with the characters in the "important" books I was reading. Most of all, like Deresiewicz, when I was in college and early on afterward, I thought Jane Austen was not even close to worth my time.
And yet, for all of our similarities, there was something about Deresiewicz that just rubbed me the wrong way and, as a result, I didn't love A Jane Austen Education.
This is not to say I wouldn't recommend it, because I would. The premise is interesting: That Austen's books are both about education and an education themselves. Deresiewicz states that reading Jane Austen's six novels changed his life, teaching him important life lessons that forced him to grow up. An interesting premise, but one that I found wore thin and felt forced. Deresiewicz's voice at times rings false, forced and put-on. His narration often reads more like someone from an Austen novel, rather than a professor in 2011 looking back at his youth. That quickly became grating and gave the entire book a false tone, to me.
What's more, I found Deresiewicz's observations and theories about Austen's motives and goals for her work to be too much. I almost want to complain that it was far-fetched but that's not it, not exactly. It's more that Deresiewicz seemed to have had an idea that he wanted to write about how Austen helped him grow up so he fit each Austen novel in to a step on his journey toward that growing up. It was too clean, too forced.
So why would I say that I would recommend the book? Well, for all of its failings, I enjoyed reading some of what he, as a young scholar in New York City, learned from Jane Austen's young heroines. Reading about how transformative literature can be is exciting to a book-lover like me, whether I agree whole-heartedly the author or not. I firmly believe that literature can and does change lives and Deresiewicz clearly believes that Austen changed his. It may be a little too forced overall, but his observations are valid and will give readers a different look at Austen, one that they just might find gives them the impetus to give her a second look.