A Jane Austen Education for the Unbeliever
In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz chronicles his adventures in mining Austen’s novels, as well as distilling what he found into distinct categories: everyday matters, growing up, learning to learn, being good, true friends, and falling in love. He very aptly adapted the lessons from her work -— which could be denigrated to “quaint” or relegated to the beautifully (if not twitterpatedly) cinematic (Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, be still my heart!) -— to make sense, actually startlingly practical sense, in today’s social constructs.
Sometimes it’s difficult to be a contemporary feminist and appreciate the feminist strides women made in the past, because no matter what, our frames of reference will always be so different. If feminism looks different than it did 150 years ago, our ideas about character and duty and friendship are certainly different as well. Add onto that, Austen has always been a polarizing icon. It's easy to get wrapped up, or lost, in the details of her writing and miss the bigger picture that she so subtly infused into every story she told.
Deresiewicz certainly addresses the many complaints lodged from the opposition -— she’s too stuffy, passionless, her stories banal, or worst of all, she’s a writer of women’s literature (which is the way literary white men euphemistically say “gross”). Frankly, I’m really surprised that a sexually liberated, intellectual Jewish man could be so in tune with the moral and philosophical sensibilities of a Victorian Era woman writer. Goes to show what I know, eh?
In the first part of each chapter, Deresiewicz outlines the basic plot of whatever particular novel he’s referencing (sans spoilers) and also frames up where he was in his life when he first read that novel. He beautifully entwines his personal narrative of a crucial time period in his life with the awakenings he received through studying Jane. It’s the second part of each chapter that really got me every time. Just when I thought, “Oh, this is nice and good,” he would take it to the next level and reach me where I live. Or rather, he’d take me to where Jane took him: the better and worse parts of who we are as people.
I’d love to include a few quotes or something, but I have underlined and marked so very many pages that the best thing to do is to say, Go read this book. It’s not just another book about Jane. It’s not a smarmy love note from an uncompromising, academic Janeite. It’s fascinating, it’s challenging, and it’s engaging. It’s smart but not elitist, charming but not shallow. Go. Read. This. Book.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read it again.
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