A Jane Austen Education And My Own Love Story
It was nearly two decades ago now. Fresh out of college, I was sharing a house with five other recent grads, living on Pop-Tarts, and working on a university campus as a student leadership advisor. And swiftly falling in love with a boy I couldn’t be with.
The boy and I had met the summer before and struck up a close friendship. He was caring, outgoing, and smart. I was nearly sure the growing affection was mutual. But he was also a student at the college where I worked and there are (very good) rules against that sort of thing. Romance was not an option. We entered a season of overly polite interactions, me trying to do the right thing and keep my distance while all I wanted to do was be with him.
Already a Jane Austen fan (who isn’t?), I read my beloved Sense and Sensibility more than once that long year. One of its heroines, Elinor Dashwood, felt like she had been written just for me. Not just because she, too, had to spend her days hiding her love for Edward Ferrars for the sake of propriety, even though it devastated her. But also because she was me in the way she valued reason above feeling and put what was right above what she wanted. I saw myself in Elinor’s careful governing of her actions and the way she guarded her feelings, even at times from herself.
I had talked myself out of more than one potential relationship by that point in my life, and I started to do it again. I did such a good job pretending he was just another student, convincing everyone that there was nothing of interest between us, that I started to doubt it, too. If we were really in love, shouldn’t it be harder, even nearly impossible, to keep ourselves apart? Wouldn’t true love be impossible to hide?
But through it all there was my Elinor. Elinor, who governed her love for Edward so well that even those closest to her mistook her control for indifference -- but whose feelings for him were actually very real and very deep and, in the end, the most true of any in the book.
Jane Austen’s fictional character taught me to appreciate my strange little logical heart; not to compare it with the unbridled love of movies or my friends’ whirlwind act-on-their-heart romances. I loved and respected Elinor just as she was; I decided to love and respect myself. I stopped telling myself that my feelings for him weren’t real. For the first time, I trusted what I felt.
Three years later, long free of pesky collegiate rules, I married that boy.
It’s no surprise that I loved A Jane Austen Education. William Deresiewicz masterfully wove her six novels into his own post-graduate story of becoming more self-aware, compassionate and confident, all with wonderful literary insight into each book and interesting tidbits about Austen’s own life. He opened himself up to being challenged and changed by Austen’s characters the same way Elinor Dashwood changed me. He didn’t hold her fiction at arm’s length, but believed there could be fundamental truths about community and ourselves found there if we allow ourselves to see them.
The book surprised me by living up to its subtitle, “How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter,” without being shallow or gimmicky. Instead it was an honest, reflective story about a reader being changed and matured by what he read. And it was interesting, to boot.
Any fan of Jane Austen will certainly enjoy this memoir, with its deep knowledge of and affection for her and her books. But also anyone who knows that experience of reading fiction not just for entertainment, but for the truths she might find there -- anyone who has ever said, “This novel changed my life.”