A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. His idea of solitude has inspired my posts “No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude” and “Alone Again… Unnaturally.”

I’ve not seen any pictures of him, but know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.

It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.

So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.

Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.

As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:

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 woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:

From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.

Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.

From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.

For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…

By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.

From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.

The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.

From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.

… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?

… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.

From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie “When Harry Met Sally”, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”

A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.

Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.

And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.

To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.

Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, 255 pages.

This article has been published in the Jane Austen Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to go there for more Regency and Austen reads.

CLICK HERE to William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz”

  1. This sounds really interesting! Thanks for your post!

    .
    actaggart,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Yes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

    Arti

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  2. Very interesting. I will show this to my daughter who really enjoys all things Austen…

    .
    Ellen,

    A ‘Janeite’ will love this book, but whoever that’s not could well be converted into one. So, try it yourself. 😉

    Arti

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  3. I saw this being offered on the TLC Book Tours, and I believe I read a review of Frances’ (Nonsuch Book) which was far less glowing than this. I had a bit of a frustration with dear Jane when I recently finished Northanger Abbey, and so I’m not sure that this book would sit well with me right now. But, I’m glad that you liked it and even knew of the author (whose name was totally new to me).

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    1. Bellezza,

      Thank you for letting me know about the TLC Book Tours. I went over there and read all the 12 reviews. Interestingly, your mention of Nonsuch Book is the only one that has an overall negative tone about the book. Except one other that mentions a little reservation, all the rest share very positive responses to it.

      Now I’m introduced to 12 more book blogs. I’ll be sure to visit them in the future. As for Northanger Abbey, if you read Deresiewicz’s book, you just might have a different view of it.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Arti

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  4. Arti, I actaully feel excited about this book, for all manner of reasons, not the least of which is the section you culled on Mansfield Park. (resonated).
    And, yup, love the cover. (can’t help it – clever!)

    .
    oh,

    In that case, I’m sure you’ll find the book ‘enlightening’… not just the Mansfield Park chapter. 😉 Yes, even the cover is sarcastic, for it’s exactly not the ‘dress-up dolls’ kind of education WD is describing, but the transformative power of JA’s literature on one young man’s journey of character maturation.

    Arti

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  5. I’m always very interested in the crossover books academics write for the commercial market – seeing as I’d like to do one myself! I think he is probably making the relation with Jane Austen out to be neater and tidier than it really was, but publishers push you to do that kind of thing (as I know now from experience). Actually, I prefer the messier reality, but that doesn’t sell. Still, I am very intrigued by this book and would like to get hold of a copy. Seeing as I love Jame Austen, I can’t really go wrong with it, can I?

    .
    litlove,

    Thanks for confirming my intuition… I had the feeling that it was too neat and tidy. Then I thought it could well be for the packaging and sellability of the product. And as I mentioned in my post, I had to make the decision to see it as genuine audacity. Like I believe it to be mostly true, it’s a matter of rearranging and trimming the facts and feelings. And I had to accept it that way too since I’d followed WD and appreciated his viewpoints in the past. He’s a well-recognized and respected ex-academic, literary critic, and social commentator. It’s not that he’s a novice who tries to break into the publishing business. I’d say for your purpose, this is a good reference, an example of a successful fusion of academics and popular culture… albeit a bit heavier on the latter.

    Arti

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  6. Thanks for enlightening me about this book. I saw it recently and thought, ugh, another book about Jane Austen and yet another reading memoir. And I immediately decided I would never read it. Now, I just might read it after all.

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    Stefanie,

    Well I wanted to read it as soon as I knew about it because of the author. I was most curious to know what Deseriewicz has to say about Jane Austen. And I was most surprised to find it so personal and revealing. Most unique I’d say of all the JA spin-offs I’ve read.

    Arti

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  7. How extraordinary! I feel schooled, sitting here. I will come back to this and read these excerpts again.

    The humility expressed by Deresiewicz is beautiful. That he would attend to Austen, and learn from her what he did through these characters that I love, just touches me. I was similarly touched when my son-in-law read P & P because my daughter loves it, and then he loved it and has read it three times. By the way, happiness and joy abound as we just learned yesterday that he got a job teaching (philosophy) at a university in Michigan. They will be moving “home” from NYC, and all of us couldn’t be more thrilled. I look forward to talks about Austen with him, as perhaps Lesley and I can convince him to read them all.

    Wonderful, wonderful post, Arti. Things are hectic (which is why it took me so long to get here), but there is something in this book that really draws me, and I want to pay attention to it.

    And yes, that cover!! Could anything be more delightful?

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    1. Ruth,

      I’m so glad to hear that your daughter will be moving back closer to home from NYC, and that your son-in-law has found a college teaching post right in MI. How perfect is that! You ‘ll have lots of chances to discuss with him philosophy and Jane Austen. I particularly admire guys who have read JA and found that she’s much more cerebral than they first thought, and are willing to admit their admiration! So yes, Deseriewicz is a rare find. And your’re right, it takes humility to admit that, as he has said that in the book, but since I don’t have it with me now, let me paraphrase… it takes humility to admit that men have things to learn from a woman writer.

      Thanks for your kind words and I’m sure you and your family members, both male and female, can use the book as a springboard to lively conversations in the future.

      Like

  8. I’ve been here several times and just couldn’t collect my thoughts – I kept bouncing up and down in my chair squealing something like, “This is my entree into Austen, at last!”

    I so identify with Deresiewicz, and the lessons he learned: about academic snobbery, about egocentricity and mistake-making, about learning and teaching and finally growing up. This one’s a must-read for me. No question.

    But you know what knocked me over when I read it here? That Austen wrote only six novels! If you’d asked me how many she wrote over the course of her life, I would have said something like thirty-five – that’s what it seems like, from the quantity of criticism, etc. focused on her.

    I’m just amazed. I always – always! – learn something here!

    .
    Linda,

    You’ll be surprised how open WD is. Remember my ‘solitude’ posts? My impression of him is much altered as I read the book, no, not negatively, but, I now know way more about WD from this book than just by reading his articles.

    And you ought to be amazed about JA’s genius. She’d had three novels ‘under her belt’ so to speak, albeit unpublished, before she was 25. Fate, if I may use that word, had not dealt her a smooth hand as she’d had obstacles in trying to publish, and to live within their means after her father died. And of course, the saddest part is, she died so young, at 41. It does seem like she’d written thirty-five, and how we all wish. We’d have a few JA movies every year. 😉

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  9. I saw this on the table at Barnes & Noble this weekend when I was in Chicago — the cover is fabulous, isn’t it? — and I passed it up only because my suitcase, tote and daypack were so stuffed, I didn’t think I could carry one more ounce on the train and manage my luggage! But I certainly didn’t get this rich overview from the book blurb and a quick glance, so I’m very glad you wrote about it in more detail. I’m going to circulate this link to our book club to take a look for a future read. I would think we could have some lively discussion!

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    Jeanie,

    For sure this is going to stir up some ripples in your book club. And I hope there are guys… it’ll be most interesting to hear what they think about this book. 😉

    Arti

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  10. Thank you for writing this–it is everything you say it is and more. I stumbled upon Deresiewicz at a Powell’s reading in Portland and have been following him ever since! I worry that people (especially men and academics) will pass by it because it includes the words: Jane Austen. If V.S. Naipaul’s latest remarks are any indication of how the world still views female writers (and Dereswicz hints that it is), many will miss this wonderfully honest and engaging book!

    Heather

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    Heather,

    Welcome and thanks for leaving your comment. What a stumble it was for you to discover Deresiewicz that way! You’re right of course… anyone who has read her works with an open mind would easily glean the wit and wisdom of JA. It’s unfortunate that it takes boldness, especially for men, to admit her ingenuity. I really feel that contemporary terms such as “chick lit” and all the parodies have done a disservice to JA’s works.

    You’re welcome to browse my other JA posts. Just click on the word Jane Austen in the category cloud on the side bar will lead you to my various articles. Hope to hear from you again!

    Arti

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  11. I saw this on The book report the other day, it sounds absolutely delightful, definitely going on my birthday list.

    .
    Sally,

    Welcome! And yes, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

    Arti

    Like

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