Monday, May 2, 2011

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

Title: A Jane Austen Education
Author: William Deresiewicz
ISBN: 978-1594202889
Pages: 272
Release Date: April 28, 2011
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Genre: Memoir
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.


  1. This book is interesting to me for the simple fact that it deals with a male reading Austen. Not many of them out there actually do that, and even though some of his revelations seem a bit silly, I think it would be intriguing to find out how he felt about the works he was reading. This was a great and fantastically perceptive review. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Like Heather, I am interested in the male perspective on Austen. Great review!

  3. Great review. I would be very interested to read his perspective and also learn more of Austen's works.

  4. I'm glad to see that not every chapter was like the Emma one! I love the insights on love - they definitely ring true to me.

    Thanks for such a thorough review!

  5. ZIBILEE: I thought it was great that a man wrote this book and discovered that Jane Austen is a wonderful author. He is very honest about the "guy" qualities that make him doubtful of Austen and reluctant to read her at first. He over-analyzes a couple of times and creates lessons with flimsy evidence. But 4 out of the 6 chapters are very well done and very intriguing. And he knows Jane Austen and has done an exhaustive amount of research.
    Thank you for your compliments :o)

  6. TRISHA: Thank you, I'm so glad you liked my review! I know many males who have no interest in reading Austen and consider her too girly, a writer of icky romances etc. but they have no experience with Austen. I was very happy that this book was written by a man who is very honest about his "guy-ness". I hope you enjoy the book!

  7. PESKY CAT DESIGNS: This book is very good if you haven't read many of Jane Austen's books. The author quotes key passages from each work and discusses what Austen is saying in each story. But the author doesn't give too much away. I'd recommend either reading this book and then any of Austen's books that appeal to you or, even better, reading one of Austen's novel and the the chapter from this book that corresponds to the Austen work you read! I hope you have a chance to enjoy Austen soon. her books are wonderful!

  8. HEATHERTLC: After I read the author's chapter on Emma, I wasn't look forward much to the rest of the book, despite enjoying the passages about the author's life. Fortunately, he does a much better discussion of what he learns from Austen in several of the other chapter, such as the one on Pride & Prejudice. And his last chapter, the one on love, is really great. The author has obviously done exhaustive research on Jane Austen and there is no doubt he admires and respects her.

  9. "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."

    This was in a nutshell the problem with the book for me. Although I enjoyed the sections where he removed the personal elements to discuss just Austen, his own story seemed so forced into this mold that I had a hard time stomaching it. His knowledge of the author is impressive but I wish he had found another way to express it for a general audience.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I really enjoyed this book, mainly because I wanted to read what a guy had to say about reading Austen. I didn't get the same things he did from Austen's novels, though, but I didn't question it because we all take different things from books. You do raise a lot of interesting points, though.

    I managed to get my BA in English without reading Austen. I think it just depends on what electives you take. We didn't read Austen in the English Lit class I took; we didn't read Austen in high school either, but I'd already read her on my own at that point. ;)

  11. I am a man and I love Jane's stories. I love how she pours herself into the stories. We get to see what she saw, what she believed, what she loved, how she felt. When Marianne is in anguish trying to understand Willoughby's behavior, I believe that's Jane crying out too. When she shows us Henry Crawford's thoughts, I see how judgemental she can be, how she sizes people up and judges them. That's a flaw but I just smile and say "That's just Jane being Jane" and love her anyway. When she pokes fun at Lizzy Bennet, she's poking fun at her own prejudices. When she shows Fanny Price starting to doubt her own judgement whether she should reject Henry Crawford, I see Jane's own self doubt, becoming 'wobbly' when others turn up the pressure. When Fanny or Anne Elliot are treated not with hatred but with careless contempt, I know that this is how Jane felt. When her characters have to suffer quietly as someone they loved become attach to others, I am sure Jane has dealt with this. When I see Elinore's stoic heroism, I experience Jane's admiration for her sister Cassandra. I could go on and on but how many hours do you have? :) I'm a Janite. Just how much I am is between me and Jane. :)