Author: William Deresiewicz
Release Date: April 28, 2011
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Publisher summary: In A Jane Austen Education, Austen scholar William Deresiewicz turns to the author's novels to reveal the remarkable life lessons hidden within. With humor and candor, Deresiewicz employs his own experiences to demonstrate the enduring power of Austen's teachings. Progressing from his days as an immature student to a happily married man, Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education is the story of one man's discovery of the world outside himself.
A self-styled intellectual rebel dedicated to writers such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, Deresiewicz never thought Austen's novels would have anything to offer him. But when he was assigned to read Emma as a graduate student at Columbia, something extraordinary happened. Austen's devotion to the everyday, and her belief in the value of ordinary lives, ignited something in Deresiewicz. He began viewing the world through Austen's eyes and treating those around him as generously as Austen treated her characters. Along the way, Deresiewicz was amazed to discover that the people in his life developed the depth and richness of literary characters-that his own life had suddenly acquired all the fascination of a novel. His real education had finally begun.
Weaving his own story-and Austen's-around the ones her novels tell, Deresiewicz shows how her books are both about education and themselves an education. Her heroines learn about friendship and feeling, staying young and being good, and, of course, love. As they grow up, they learn lessons that are imparted to Austen's reader, who learns and grows by their sides.
A Jane Austen Education is a testament to the transformative power of literature, a celebration of Austen's mastery, and a joy to read. Whether for a newcomer to Austen or a lifelong devotee, Deresiewicz brings fresh insights to the novelist and her beloved works. Ultimately, Austen's world becomes indelibly entwined with our own, showing the relevance of her message and the triumph of her vision.
My Thoughts: I've been reading Jane Austen books for years. My mother graduated with a BA in English and introduced me to many of her favorite Jane Austen works when I was a teenager. Like the author of this memoir, William Deresiewicz, I also studied English in college but I wouldn't have been able to obtain a BA without reading Austen. When I read about A Jane Austen Education, I was curious how he managed to get to the graduate level never having read Austen! We're never told, still I was interested in finding out what life lessons a young man in his early/mid 20s discovered in the complex works of Jane Austen.
A Jane Austen Education is, for the most part, an enjoyable and entertaining read while also providing interesting information about her life. Deresiewicz presents the life lessons he learns from each Austen work clearly and provides good examples of the points he makes using corresponding text. Deresiewicz is honest, sometimes brutally so, about the person he was before reading Jane Austen. At times he makes it seem that, without Austen, he would be an arrogant, ignorant, uncouth barbarian. This may be true but, considering that Deresiewicz didn't begin reading Austen until he was about 26 years old, it's a little difficult to fathom he didn't learn, earlier in life, some of things with which he credits her.
In the beginning of his memoir, Deresiewicz tells us he identified with authors such as Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad and Nabakov when he was assigned Emma. He and his classmates considered Jane Austen a dull, silly, romantic writer of fairytales. In other words: too girly. He didn't believe there was anything sophisticated about Jane Austen, despite having heard her works were more complex than anything by, say, Joyce or Proust. But then one day, he finally gets it. After finding Emma banal and tedious, he suddenly sees things in a different light, realizing the boredom and cynicism he's been experiencing while reading Emma is exactly what Austen wanted: "She had incited them in order to expose them". "She was showing me my own ugly face".
Deresiewicz credits Emma with helping him understand the importance of seeing, talking and thinking like a woman, things he'd scoffed at not too long ago. It seems that for 26 years, he hasn't found any women worthy of his respect. So it's a little harder to accept the revelation that after reading some of Emma, suddenly Deresiewicz understands the worth of being a woman and the possibility there might be "important things to learn from them". It's as if Deresiewicz never saw anything from a woman's point of view, let alone read a (good) book by one. But it's good to know he's finally seen the light!
The problem I have with Deresiewicz' first chapter is: those aren't the lessons he takes away from Emma. He wants us to believe the life lesson he learned is the importance of noticing life, of paying attention to the little things. Deresiewicz tells us Jane Austen taught him to take everything about his life seriously including the "little events", "the little moments of feeling". When it comes right down to it, isn't this a similar idea to "stop and smell the roses"? I can’t imagine Deresiewicz wouldn’t have heard or read of this concept elsewhere before reading Emma. In other words, it's hard to believe this was a 26-year old graduate student’s first life lesson in the "appreciate the little things" department. It feels like Deresiewicz is analyzing Emma a little too much, for some reason not content with what he's already learned. It also makes the "life lessons" concept look a bit like a cute gimmick and threatens Deresiewicz credibility for the rest of the chapters.
It is unfortunate he begins the memoir with Emma. It means he starts off seemingly trying to "shoehorn" a learned lesson to fit the book. On the other hand, although there is one other "flimsy" chapter, Deresiewicz is far more successful in presenting believable life lessons from many of Austen's other books. So, despite one or two shortcomings, for the most part the book is a success and quite believable.
Deresiewicz 's chapter about Sense and Sensibility, in which Austen educates him on love is intriguing and sincere. He comes to understand Austen holds that love is a culmination of all the other lessons she's imparted (to him) in her other works. It just takes Deresiewicz a little while to get there, admitting to struggling with Sense and Sensibility quite a bit. He describes it as a "sober, even bitter" book and finds it very different from Austen's other novels. Deresiewicz discusses societal notions of love from Romeo and Juliet to the concept of soul mates puzzling over why Austen's characters don't often end up in these very romantic type relationships. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne believes that true love means you have the same taste, the same ideas and it's "wild and free" and knows "no bounds or rules". Deresiewicz admits he subscribes to this kind of love and thought Austen did as well, which is why he struggles with Sense and Sensibility. Deresiewicz realizes that he had a relationship similar to Marianne & Willoughby's: love at first sight, agreeing about everything, unable to tear yourselves apart. And just like Marianne & Willoughby's, it crashed and burned.
Deresiewicz realized he'd projected his ideals of romance onto her characters just like the movie adaptations, which is why they're often so different from the books they are based on. Deresiewicz realizes that for Jane Austen love is about goodness, growing up, learning and friendship. Austen believed, he realizes, that you have to know your self before you can open your heart to another and then, you need to know that other person. Austen didn't believe in the notion of "falling in love". Instead, she felt that we learn to love as we grow up and mature. Deresiewicz looked beyond Austen's books and into her life to determine her true ideas about love. Jane Austen's niece asked her advice when trying to decide whether or not to accept a marriage proposal. Austen advised her that the most important thing when choosing a mate is "character". He remembered reading Austen's ideas about character in Pride & Prejudice, in which he came to understand what it really means to be an adult. Deresiewicz finally realizes what Austen has revealed in all of her novels: the person you love is the one who challenges you to be better and, in the same way, you will challenge them. A true love is someone who is different from you in opinions, tastes and ideas. Love is about "mutual respect, regard and esteem". For Deresiewicz, this was a lesson well-learned since he married the woman he was dating while studying Austen’s lessons on love!
It is Deresiewicz’s maturation and successful examples to prove it that make this memoir so compelling. Apart from an unfortunate section in his chapter on Emma that seems forced, this is a great book for anyone who needs an introduction to Austen, or, if you are already familiar with her works, a wonderful new way to look at her writing as well as to learn a little bit about her life. And it doesn't matter if you're male or female! Jane Austen is an extremely accomplished, much-loved and enduring author and A Jane Austen Education is a fitting tribute.
I want to thank TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review A Jane Austen Education.