A Jane Austen Education: Learning About Love From a (Much) Older Woman
I hesitated reading A Jane Austen Education. For one thing, I've only read two of Jane Austen’s six novels. I loved the light wit and humor of Pride and Prejudice and immediately spring-boarded into Sense and Sensibility, expecting more of the same, but was so disappointed with it that I didn't even bother picking up any of the others.
But curiosity won out -- curiosity about William Deresiewicz, the author, and curiosity about how someone could learn so much about life from reading Austen's works -- especially a man, as sexist as that sounds.
The lessons he says he learned are tenets I agree with and believe in, like “Pay attention to the everyday things,” “Stay awake; don’t take things for granted,” and, “Be honest with your friends,” but when I read Pride and Prejudice, I’m not sure I took away the message “You aren’t born perfect,” he says he received.
Hmmm. Was he reading more into it than Austen intended? I had to find out.
I worried the book would be boring or too analytical, like one of those Literature classes that manages to stomp the enjoyment right out of a story, but the way Deresiewicz weaves his own parallel tale of transformation through those of Jane Austen's characters kept me interested. It helped that each of Austen’s novels gets its own chapter.
One fact that surprised me -- he didn’t read the books by choice. It was pure accident. He had gone back to school for his Ph.D. “to fill in the gaps” in his literary education, but “the one area of English literature that held no interest for me, that positively repelled me, was nineteenth-century British fiction. What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” He writes that just thinking about Jane Austen made him sleepy. But he had to read Emma in one of his classes, and even though he was in agony at first, thinking it trivial and banal, he ended up totally hooked, realizing Austen was telling us "what life is really about."
Deresiewicz is brutally candid about his “pre-Austen” personality flaws. His journey through her stories proved to be a mirror, helping him recognize those flaws and figure out how to fix them. Essentially, she provided the instruction he needed to grow up, appreciate real friendship and recognize true love.
Yes, his memoir is a love story.
And he helped me understand why I probably didn’t care for Sense and Sensibility. He says the lesson he learned from it is “Love is about growing up, not staying young.” When I read the book, I was only 20, maybe 21, and in the middle of a long-term, dead-end, roller-coaster-ride relationship. I probably didn’t like seeing what I saw in the mirror Austen held in front of me.
But perhaps I learned the lesson after all. Soon afterward, I did fall in love -- the grown-up kind -- and my experience was very similar to Deresiewicz’s. Maybe reading Sense and Sensibility actually helped me recognize it when I found it.
The only glitch for me in reading the book was trying to keep all of the names straight -- Austen’s characters, family and friends all have similar names: Mary, Jane, Anne, Fanny, Cassandra, Elizabeth, Henry, Edward… I’m sure after all the time Deresiewicz has spent with them, he knows them intimately, but for me -- someone who hasn’t even read all of the books -- it got my head spinning at times. I needed a Who’s Who chart!
But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and ultimately, Deresiewicz convinced me to give Austen another chance. Thanks to Penguin Press, I have the whole collection waiting for me on my bookshelf.