A Jane Austen Education Is A Peek Inside Your Favorite Professor’s Head
As a former English literature major I was always curious what kind of lives my professors actually lived outside of the crowded classrooms they commanded and their tiny dusty offices filled with journals and novels and old blue book tests. And now I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse through A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. This was rather the perfect little hybrid of a book. It reads like a mildly revealing memoir crossed with a self help book then mixed and mingled with some light literary analysis. All this is handcrafted and carefully knitted together by your favorite literature professor. I could see Professor Deresiewicz, the author taught English at Yale for years, with dark bags under his eyes at 3am slaving away with the stereotypical tweed elbow patched jacket slung across the back of his desk chair, shirt sleeves rolled up, red pen in hand to mark up his own work.
When A Jane Austen Education begins, Deresiewicz is a depressed, cocky Columbia college student running through a string of crappy relationships, trying to impress his oppressive and demanding father, dismayed at being forced to read Jane Austen for his course work when his preferences fell to Conrad and Joyce, ok he's just generally a bit of a prig at the beginning. By the end of the book though, he's earned his doctorate in English Literature, met his future wife, become an independent and competent teacher and turned into a grown up, an emotionally self aware and mature grown up, the best kind.
I found myself charmed by the format and style of the book. Distilling down to a central theme for each of Jane Austen’s six novels and dividing the book into six sections he then analyzes and compiles his own personal stories together to help emphasize the influence and impact of each story on his own life. I felt that Deresiewicz did an admirable job sharing his personal growth and his passion for Jane Austen’s characters and themes. He honors her consummate writing ability and her skill at couching the depth of the story under what appear to be daily trivialities. Or as Deresiewicz puts it, "as with Mozart or Rembrandt, the highest art lies in concealing art." Deresiewicz paints Austen as the artist that she is, an artist of manners and gossip and the relationships born out of small, tightly woven communities, of the middle class and the wealthy, sisters and aunts and friends and their romantic entanglements, their struggles to balance their romantic dreams with reality, and to find happiness and satisfaction.
Much like Austen’s novels, initially this book comes across as a fluffy light trifle like so many memoirs lately. While this is a fairly slight little memoir when it comes to juicy, titillating details, inside there is depth and strength to the main character, Deresiewicz himself, and lessons to be learned about one’s own role in the world. I admired the way that Deresiewicz presented the literary analysis, not in a heavy handed way, but softly blended in with his own personal narrative. I also enjoyed the focus on the way Jane Austen’s novels were viewed in her time period and the role of novels in society at the time. Novels were usually about women and women’s lives, which were greatly absent from public life and larger historical events that were captured in newspapers and male dominated history books so “history is what did happen, novels are what might happen.” I like to focus on the “what might happen" myself.
This was a fun, educational and entirely engaging book. I wouldn’t mind auditing Deresiewicz’s class next semester, if he were still teaching. And I most certainly plan on re-reading Jane Austen’s work over the next few months this summer. I watched the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma the day after I finished the book, and I saw it in an entirely different light. And that’s the power and success of a good book, to educate and change your perception of something you were already certain you understood. This book surprised me. And surprise is one of the great delights in life. But let me let Deresiewicz say it better, "The wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.” Read this book and it just might.
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