Rusty Bicycle Pumps and A Jane Austen Education

BlogHer Review

I suffered through AP English in high school, which taught me some semi-useful things about books:

1. If you have to study it, it somehow becomes boring.

2. If the person you're talking to is telling you what the author intended, they're probably wrong.

The first was hard for me to learn, as I loved (and still love) reading, but something about endless vocabulary sheets and examining each and every example of alliteration and metaphor sucked all the joy out of the story for me. The second involved reading James Joyce's The Dubliners and having to listen to my teacher explain why a rusty bicycle pump in the garden obviously symbolized the snake in the garden of Eden. How, exactly, did she know that? Did James Joyce tell her? Or was she making it up or attributing something she thought and claiming it to be the author's intention?

That last bit was how I felt while reading A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. It's an interesting examination of Austen's books, and I did enjoy the idea that such simple ideas (Pay attention to the little things; You aren't born perfect; Be honest with your friends.) have such a powerful message when told through the eyes of Austen's heroines. But there is something about the way William Deresiewicz goes about telling the reader about it that... bothers me. There are no rusty bicycle pumps, but there are several instances where the author claims that what he got out of Austin's novels is exactly what Austin intended to convey. And hey, what do I know? Maybe he's right. But... maybe he isn't. After all, if you've never spoken to the author or read any private notes on their work, how would you know?

While Mr. Deresiewicz does include some notes from Austen, mostly from letters to her family, he doesn't go as deeply into the connections to the novels and to the messages he ascribes to Austen as I would have liked. And I think that's why I was a bit disappointed in this book. I wanted something meatier, something that draws parallels to Austen's life and her heroines, and showed how her beliefs as she was writing each novel went into the formation of the story. If he had told the story of just "here's what I learned from Austen's novels," or "here's how Austen wrote her novels," I think I would have enjoyed it more. Instead, he tried to do both, and came off without pulling off either.

Now, I'm off to reread Pride and Prejudice and see if I can't find any rusty bicycle pumps of my own.

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