A Jane Austen Education: That Time Between College and "Life"
I read four Jane Austen novels at least four times a piece while studying English at the University of Iowa, so when I received A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, I sniffed at it with my Total Book Snob nose. But it only took a few pages before my nose fell off.
For years after college, it was hard for me to enjoy books. I was too busy picking them apart and judging their literary qualities. Once I had enough time and space, I was able to see them for what they truly are -- invitations to new and unknown worlds. Sure, I still scoff when something is poorly written, but I'm not going to take extensive self-querying notes in the margins anymore.
A Jane Austen Education does dabble into the lit crit arena from time to time, but it's mostly a coming-of-age tale for Generation X. (Are we still X? Whatevs. You know what I mean.) My generation was the first to extend our time between college and "life." Suddenly, college grads were moving back in with their parents, getting married much later, and questioning our paths in life for a much longer amount of time -- much to the chagrin of many parents. As Desersiewicz gets to know Austen characters, he hones in on this aspect of post-collegiate life. Regarding Emma:
"I was used to thinking about growing up in terms of going to school and getting a job: passing tests, gaining admissions, accumulating credentials, acquiring the kinds of knowledge and skills that made you employable -- the terms in which my parents (and everyone else, for that matter) had taught me to think about it. If I had been asked to consider what kinds of personal qualities it might involve -- which I doubt I ever was -- I would have spoken of things like self-confidence and self-esteem. As for anything like character or conduct, who even used such words anymore? Their very sound was harsh to me: so demanding, so inflexible. They made me think of school uniforms, and nuns with rulers, and cold baths on winter mornings -- all the terrible things that people used to inflict on their children."
Oh yes, I get it. I was that way, too. I was far more concerned with being Super Smart and standing on various soapboxes than I was creating good character within myself. Only with age did I learn to value the importance of... values.
In A Jane Austen Education, I was given the opportunity to think about personal character development again in the best possible way -- through Jane Austen novels. I always enjoyed the stories, but now I see them with new eyes. As an aunt, I appreciated this nugget from the Northanger Abbey section the most:
"As her letters to her nieces and nephews make clear, Austen celebrated youth in her life as well as in her books. She was always looking to entertain and engage her young relations, always interested in what they had to say."
Reading A Jane Austen Education taught me many new things about one of my favorite writers, but most importantly, it reminded me to keep close those lessons I've learned as a reader -- and to entertain and engage my young niece with as many stories as possible.