Jane Austen Saved William Deresiewicz's Life! (Spoilers)
William Deresiewicz? What a Jerk! That was my assessment of the author after reading the first few pages of A Jane Austen Education. I’ve known plenty of guys like him throughout my life. Self-centered, and angrily sarcastic. Enter Jane Austen, and just in the nick of time!
I enjoyed experiencing the author’s transformation as he encountered each Austen novel. Having read five of the six novels myself, it was interesting to compare my thoughts to his, and to learn something new about each novel that made me want to go back and read every one! I found the weaving of actual letters penned by Austen into Deresiewicz’s chapters very interesting. These letters always re-emphasized the author’s points and brought more understanding to Austen’s characters in the books as well as to Austen herself.
Through Emma, Deresiewicz learns to pay attention to “minute particulars”, for these things are what life is really about. He comes to recognize that the most important kind of moral seriousness is “taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” This is an idea that I had never thought of but have come to appreciate.
Pride and Prejudice helps the author realize that growing up means making mistakes, but more importantly, by going through Elizabeth’s experiences with her he learns that “it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it.” I totally agree with Deresiewicz’s assessment that, for Austen, growing up has everything to do with character and conduct and nothing to do with knowledge or skills. What a great concept!
For me, the most compelling part of Deresiewicz’s chapter on Northanger Abby had less to do with the novel and more to do with his relationship with his professor. I had a professor in college that was so similar in every way that reading this chapter brought back all the memories, feelings, and experiences I had with my professor. I quickly embraced the idea that we must get into the habit of learning to love, and that we can keep learning to love new things our whole lives. I’m excited to re-read Northanger Abby and experience these ideas through Austen’s characters as Deresiewicz did.
Mansfield Park is the only Austen novel I have not read, but after reading Deresiewicz’s analysis I look forward to reading it. I’ve had many friends, like the author, who have lived their whole lives in luxury, and thus need to be perpetually entertained. Being entertained is not the same thing as being truly happy.
Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel. I love the fact that what the author learned most from this novel was the idea that a true friend is an honest friend. Someone who will point out your mistakes to you in a way you can’t ignore. Someone who puts your welfare before their own.
The author, through reading Sense and Sensibility, learns along with Marianne Dashwood that they had “both been deluded by our expectations about what love was supposed to look like.” Love doesn’t transform you into a better or different person -- it works with what you already are. True love is about growing up, not staying young.