A Jane Austen Education: I Found It Hard to Empathize

BlogHer Review

As a huge fan of Jane Austen -- so much a fan, in fact, that for a long time the only name on my list of potential names for potential daughters was "Emma Jane" -- I was intensely excited about the mere potential embedded in just the title of William Deresiewicz's book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter. I mean, with a title that promising, the book has to be fantastic, right?

Well ... to appropriate a phrase from Jane Austen herself: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man who purports to learn the most valuable lessons in life from a bunch of books is likely to come off as kind of pompous jerk, and is equally likely to kind of miss the point, besides."

I know nothing about the author beyond what I've read on the dust jacket -- hearsay, basically. I know about as much about William Deresiewicz as one Miss Elizabeth Bennet knew about a certain Mr. Darcy, at one point in time. Unlike Elizabeth, I am in the position of having the Internet, and since the author is apparently a fairly well-known book critic there is no doubt much to be found, if I could only be compelled to look for it, if only I could be engaged enough to effectively listen to the 21st-century digital equivalent of the town gossip.

Look, I know I sound perhaps unnecessarily harsh here, and I apologize for that, but at the same time, this book was very difficult for me to read. The very conceit of this work - and I say "conceit" purposefully, because that's exactly what it is - is spelled out right in the first two pages: "Jane Austen ... would teach [the author] everything I know about everything that matters," even though he initially feels Austen "symbolized the dullness and narrowness" of 19th-century British fiction and even though he describes Austen as "the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales."

Of course he eventually comes around to appreciating the lessons in Jane Austen's books; it just feels like it takes so long, and uses such clinical academic language, and involves so much cringe-inducing awkward social interaction. I still don't entirely understand why he would ever have considered the people he describes in the chapter on Mansfield Park to be his friends -- I certainly would not have felt comfortable around them, and I wouldn't have needed Jane Austen to teach me that. I learned from Mr. Rogers as a child that it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. I saw in my parents' marriage that the single most enduringly romantic thing that one can do is to marry their best friend. I didn't need to read Sense and Sensibility to understand that.

I don't think this book is entirely awful -- having never read any biographies of Jane Austen, I found the author's use of some of Austen's letters to be enlightening, even though I did sometimes feel that they might possibly have been used out of context -- and, of course, anything that might reinvigorate interest in the oeuvre of Jane Austen is a good thing. And perhaps the issue here is editing more than anything else; a careful hand at "softening" the vocabulary might have changed my entire perspective on the author. He just writes like such a stereotypical academic, in such uptight, passionless language, and it makes it hard to empathize with someone who supposedly learned empathy himself through the course of reading Jane Austen.

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