William Deresiewicz's Conversion. Or, How A Skeptic Came to Love Jane Austen
I’ve always been one of “those girls” who just didn’t get Jane Austen. Now, don’t get me wrong -- I admired the story lines (somewhat), appreciated the novels for the art they were, and adored sideline characters like Jane Bennet. But my goodness, how the books were boring. I always realized, of course, that they were written in a different time, with different language and yada yada yada. But honestly? The woman would write for two pages about something like the color of the grass at sunset.
I never understood why I didn’t like Jane Austen. I loved all books of the same era or type. I even loved the film adaptations or things like the Jane Austen Book Club movie. Friends of mine with similar taste in literature would rave about all things Austen, even going so far as to dream of a trip to England to explore the countryside that gave birth to a Queen of Novels. However, for some reason those novels eluded me, irritating me each time I would open one up for the fourteenth time. I even have it on my List of Life Goals to, if not learn to love Austen; at least learn to appreciate it.
All of that has changed, in as least a dramatic way as that can be stated. I am now a convert to all things Jane Austen. And I have William Deresiewicz’s book A Jane Austen Education to thank for it. It wasn’t a boom kind of conversion, but more of a gentle wooing through the course of the book, whereby the end I had the thinking of “you know, I think I love Jane Austen, truly, now.” It’s a little bit on the difficult side to place this book in a genre, but if I were pressed I probably would put it somewhere in the literary criticism meets history meets personal memoir category, all blended seamlessly.
William Deresiewicz is not your typical Austen-lover. First of all, he’s, well... a man, whereas Austen is resolutely in the originator-of-chick-lit area. And, according to the book, he would agree with you. He himself originally had the same feelings about Austen and her novels as I did. However, when he was in graduate school for literature a professor of his had the class study Austen’s novels, and a convert was born.
Each chapter of A Jane Austen Education focuses on one of her six novels and the lesson that was learned as a result of Deresiewicz’s study on that novel. For example, Pride and Prejudice teaches the author about “growing up”, while through reading Persuasion he learns about “true friends.” What began as an assignment for a course became an entire chapter of his dissertation, and a life altered. The book unpacks Austen in a way that only a former-skeptic can, going in-depth through each book itself, and most importantly, why everything was included in each book as it was. Austen did nothing by accident; all was for a purpose.
Sprinkled within the chapters are bouts of history dealing with the era in which Jane Austen lived as well as the life of the woman herself. The individual chapters deal in literary criticism and do indeed explain Austen’s intentions for writing certain passages in ways that I hadn’t thought of before. Deresiewicz shows not just how Austen wrote, but the deeper meaning behind including every bit of the book relating to Austen's personal experiences, even the parts I’d previously thought dull, unimportant, and let's face it -- boring. Each chapter builds upon the “lesson” learned in the last, so that the end result, or Epilogue, as the case may be, is a mind turned 180 degrees and a happy ending worthy of a novel.
While I did enjoy the book, it can’t be said to be readable. The chapters are fluid between the literary criticism, history of Jane Austen, and the author’s own memoir and lessons learned. However, even with all the change between the unique style of the book, it tends towards the slower side of the reading spectrum. This combined with the quickly wrapped up, all-is-well-with-the-world ending created the cons list for the book. Regardless? All that said, I would still recommend the book to a reader, Jane Austen lover or not.
Who knows? If they are not a fan of Austen they just might wind up being a convert like me. Sent along in the package with the copy of A Jane Austen Education was also The Complete Novels of Jane Austen and I for one? Am looking forward to digging in with new eyes and a renewed vigor to devour these classic novels.