“I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six year old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever. Her name was Jane Austen…”
Thus begins the book “A Jane Austen Education” by William Deresiewicz. A self-proclaimed ‘modernist’, he originally dismissed Austen’s writing as “banal.” But then, as a second year grad student, he signed himself up for “a class called Studies in the Novel, less because I knew anything about it than because it sounded like a good fit…”
The author explains that when he went to grad school he was eager to ‘fill in the gaps” of his literary education…“but the one area of English literature that held no interest for me, that positively repelled me, was nineteenth-century British fiction… Nothing symbolized the dullness and narrowness of that whole body of work like the name Jane Austen. Wasn’t she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales? Just thinking about her made me sleepy.”
“What I really wanted to study was modernism, the literature that had formed my identity as a reader and, in many ways, as a person. Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov: complex, difficult, sophisticated works. Like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image. I’d pass my days in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches… Needless to say I was not the easiest person to get along with.”
There is so much to like in this book! Although I have been reading and loving books since childhood, this author has taught me to look at literature in a new way… to pull it apart, taste it, examine it for flaws or exclaim over its perfectly shaped prose that were formed apparently just to meet my current needs. As William Deresiewicz (hereafter referred to in this review as, “William D.” !)slowly makes his way through Austen’s six novels, he finds his presuppositions challenged and not only his thinking about literature changing, but the way he views his own personal circumstances.
The author admits that he had a lot to learn about life, and reading Austen helped him to learn it:
“Her life may have seemed uneventful: she lived in a quiet corner of the English countryside, never married, never traveled more than about a hundred miles from home, didn’t publish her first novel until she was thirty-five, and died, still sharing a house with her mother and sister, just six years later. But she lived amid a host of dramatic events, both global in scope and closer to home… Jane Austen’s life may have seemed uneventful compared to her aunt’s or cousin’s or brothers’, or indeed, compared to just about anyone’s. Her genius began with the recognition that such lives as hers were very eventful indeed – that every life is eventful, if only you know how to look at it. She did not think her existence was quiet or trivial or boring; she thought it was delightful and enthralling, and she wanted us to see that our own are, too. She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.”
Much to the author’s surprise then, William D. found that all of his pretensions and preconceived notions about literature, life, and education were exactly that — preconceived notions. The more he read of Austen’s work and examined her life, the more he found himself changed. In his conclusions after reading “Emma”, the author confirms that the best of literature *does* affect us, not only outwardly, but inwardly:
“And that was when I finally understood what Austen had been up to all along. Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.”
Through his exploration of Austen’s novels the author finds himself making adjustments in his own thinking about modernism, about relationships, about education, and learns to make room for opinions other than his own. He begins to examine his own personal life and convictions (there is more than one mention — without explicit details — of personal relationships without the confines of marriage). Much to his surprise (and often, dismay), William D. finds his own viewpoint on commitments, relationships, and marriage, shifting, also. “There was one more thing about my life that had to change, now that I’d read Emma: my relationships with the people around me.” And so the author makes changes accordingly; changes in relationships, changes in how he interacts with friends and even at social events, and even changes where he chooses to live and how he grades his students’ class papers: “I wasn’t a teacher, I was a bully.”
But can reading just one author have this kind of impact on the reader? according to the author of “A Jane Austen Education”, apparently it can:
“For her (Austen), I saw, love is not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something you have to prepare yourself for. As long as Elizabeth thought that she was right about everything, as long as Emma disdained the people around her, as long as Marianne ignored her sister’s advice about the things she owed her neighbors and family, their hearts remained closed. For Austen, before you can fall in love with someone else, you have to come to know yourself. In other words, you have to grow up. Love isn’t going to magically transform you, make you into a better or even a different person – another myth that I’d bought into – it can only work with what you already are.”
I enjoyed reading about the changes William D. was making in his own personal life as he found himself challenged by Austen’s prose. This book is actually to some extent, an expose of the mistakes the author has made in his relationships and life choices, and that is part of its charm. (After all, what can be more entertaining than to read how an author is confronted and in turn humbled by his own stupidity?) But in reading “A Jane Austen Education”, I also found myself learning not only about the novels themselves but also filling in the gaps and learning about Jane Austen herself; her family, personality, and even her motivations.
This Austen treatise is not only a compelling review of her literature, but it is also a concise (although very brief) review of her own life. It is obvious that the author has done his homework. He acknowledges his indebtedness to Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen (which I need to read next!) and the published letters of Austen. He also admits the impact that one grad school professor in particular had on him, and the challenge to expand how he views literature:
“By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels – the adventures and affairs, the romances and the crises, even, at times, the plot – Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, “trivial,” everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about.”
The author has raised questions that I continue to think about, long afterward. How much can a novelist influence who we are, how we act, how we perceive the world around us? And yet, William Deresiewicz ascribes this accomplishment to Austen’s influence on his own life: “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness – taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.”