You know I’m a Janeite. You’ve seen me review A Truth Universally Acknowledged, Jane’s Fame, heck, even an awful Christian retelling of Emma. When it comes to anything Austen, it is really only a matter of time until I get to it. But when it is a book like A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, which is getting rave reviews from both mainstream reviewers and bloggers, it’s little wonder that I placed a library hold on it months ago, eager to be first in line when it came it (and then my library took ages to process it, as usual, but I digress…).
This is a memoir. It is not a book about Jane Austen, it is not a critical analysis of her work. Except, it actually is those things as well. It is the story of Deresiewicz, an American academic, and the ways in which his life was shaped by the ‘lessons’ he extracted from his readings of Austen’s novels. So much of the fun of being a Janeite is hearing how others view her. We all have our own personal idea of who she was and what she was really trying to say with her novels and I never tire of finding out how others relate to her. What Deresiewicz does with his memoir is offer us a glimpse into his own relationship with Jane and, though I may not always agree with his readings of the novels, that in no way impacted my enjoyment of the book.
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, and she would teach me everything I know about everything that matters.
Deresiewicz begins his Austen education as an arrogant graduate student, scoffing at the gentle, feminine Jane, deriding her comedies without ever having read them, confident that true literary genius is the domain of those writers who are so beloved of young men (Joyce, Conrad, etc). But then he has to read Emma for a university class and, at the age of twenty-six, falls in love with Austen. Not immediately, as he at first finds the gossip and chatter of Highbury’s good citizens tedious and pointless, but by the novel’s end he is shocked to have recognized himself in Emma and to have come to realise the value, the happiness that can be found in those little everyday details that so delight Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse:
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 neighbour said, what your friend heard, what your neighbour did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about.
For someone whose definition of great literature had previously only included depressing novels focused on great events happening to people who reacted in dramatic ways, this quiet, domestic approach that so resembled real life was a revelation:
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 that 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.
And then he reads Pride and Prejudice. Now, I studied Pride and Prejudice in Grade Ten English at an all-girl’s school but I don’t think even we swooned this much while reading it (and, trust me, there was a lot of swooning. We loved Elizabeth, we loved Jane, we loved Darcy, we loved Bingley, and we particularly loved Pemberley). From the first pages, Deresiewicz falls in love with Elizabeth Bennet, finding her utterly enchanting:
This was a completely different experience that reading Emma, and not just because I’d already become a convert. Emma showed me from the very beginning just how desperately wrong its heroine was. I couldn’t stand her – until Austen showed me how much I resembled her. But here I was, halfway through Pride and Prejudice, and not only was I head over heels for Elizabeth, I agreed with everything she said and every judgement she made. I loved her friends and hated her enemies. I would have taken her side against the world.
Deresiewicz is suitably shocked when Elizabeth’s judgements are revealed to have been so incorrect. The lesson he takes away here is the importance of making mistakes which allow you to gain self knowledge and to mature:
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 lessons of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe. Growing up, for her creator, means coming to see yourself from the outside, as one very limited person. This was Austen’s vision of redemption, just as the moment of humiliation – that excruciating scene of exposure – was Austen’s vision of grace.
Deresiewicz goes into great depth to make his point and he is an entertaining and persuasive writer but, still, I think I can mark this as the place in the book where he started losing me when it came to rationalizing his ‘lessons’. His analysis of Emma had been startlingly simplified but I was content enough with his conclusion. Here, however, the simplification becomes alarming as he attempts to distill the essence of the novel down into one, easily applicable lesson.
On the other hand, Deresiewicz gained infinite brownie points with me by calling out the irresponsible Mr Bennet:
Becoming an adult was not going to give me the right to become complacent. Again, Austen offered a perfect example of what not to do. Elizabeth’s father was a good man who had allowed his character to go to seed by choosing a wife who was never going to be able to challenge him, someone to whom it was far too easy to feel superior. Living with a woman like Mrs. Bennet had made him self-satisfied and morally lazy, and his children suffered as a result. He could have done a lot more to make his daughters financially secure, and when the great crisis came for his family, he turned out to be pretty much useless.
As the book went on, I continued to adore Deresiewicz’s reactions to the novels and his thoughts on them but I also continued to fight with his ‘lessons’ and, alarmingly, his descendent into some truly saccharine prose when it came to summing up those lessons:
By waking up to the world, by renouncing certainty and cynicism, by opening herself to new experiences – all of which take real courage, real strength – she turned her life into an adventure that would never end. This, Austen told us, is the true heroism. Life, if you live it right, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most, I now understood, is yourself. (Northanger Abbey)
And when it came to Mansfield Park, wow, do we ever view that novel differently. Now, it’s certainly not my favourite of Austen’s works and it is the one I am least familiar with but on none of my readings of it have I come away with the same conclusion as Deresiewicz, that Fanny’s virtue lies in her poverty and that:
Life was simply much more real to her than it was to Mary or Henry or Tom or Maria. Its risks were more threatening, its pleasures more precious. One of Austen’s highest lessons, I realised, is that the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without.
He maligns the wealthy as worthless, based on the example of the Bertrams (not really bothering to explain how Edmund, cursed with his family’s good fortune, escaped with his morals in tact), to some extent the Crawfords, and, mostly, a group of young, wealthy New Yorkers he fell in with as a young man. I agree with his ultimate lesson (that ‘being entertained is not the same as being happy’) but I disagree with the notion that material wealth and comfort destroys ones ability to pursue true happiness. Idleness and complacency, absolutely, but not wealth alone. It felt too much like he was forcing an interpretation of the book to suit his personal story and I liked him least when he was maligning his old friends, who are apparently all soulless, shallow socialites or social climbers. His shocked reaction to Mary Crawford’s unwillingness to marry for love without the promise of wealth or position (he has a very Marianne Dashwood-esque reaction to Mary’s practicality) sent me into one of my little ‘he doesn’t understand Austen!’ tailspins since, as I read Austen, she always promotes practicality before romance.
For Deresiewicz, Persuasion is about finding true friends, ones who will be constant and true, able to tell you the truth even though it may be unpleasant:
Putting your friend’s welfare before your own: that was Austen’s idea of true friendship. That means admitting when you’re wrong, but even more importantly, it means being willing to tell your friend when they are. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that notion, because it flew so strongly in the face of what we believe about friendship today. True friendship, we think, means unconditional acceptance and support. The true friend validates your feelings, takes your side in every argument, helps you feel good about yourself at all times, and never, ever judges you. But Austen didn’t believe that. For her, being happy means having your mistakes pointed out to you in a way that you can’t ignore. Yes, the true friend wants you to be happy but being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same things. In fact, they can sometimes be diametrically opposed. True friends do not shield you from your mistakes, they tell you about them: even at the risk of losing your friendship – which means, even at the risk of being unhappy themselves.
Mrs Smith, Anne’s widowed school friend, is held up as the greatest example of friendship here, telling Anne the truth about Mr Elliot though she stood to benefit from Anne’s generosity if her friend had married him. But, by Deresiewicz’s definition, wasn’t Lady Russell being a good friend too when she persuaded Anne to part with Wentworth years before? Wentworth had nothing practical to offer Anne at that point in their lives – no wealth, no security – and had an uncertain and dangerous future ahead of him as a naval officer. What friend, particularly one who had been almost a mother to her, would encourage Anne to pursue such a doubtful future?
Finally, in looking at Sense and Sensibility, Deresiewicz is revealed as a soft-hearted romantic (something that had been more that hinted at throughout the book). This is a Jane Austen-themed memoir after all so, of course, it has to have its own happy ending. By this point, Deresiewicz is in his early thirties but it has taken him this long to get himself to the point where he is capable of this kind of relationship (though, as far as the reader can tell from the relatively sparse details about his life, he hasn’t really changed much from the callow twenty-six year old, except for gaining an appreciation of Austen). And you know he had to have been thinking of and identifying with Marianne when he came up with his lesson from Sense and Sensibility, for surely this is not a theory that could be applied to the equally calm, equally practical Elinor and Edward:
True love takes you by surprise, Austen was telling us, and if it’s really worth something, it continues to take you by surprise…True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives. If your lover’s already just like you, then neither one of you has anywhere to go.
I love disagreeing with other readers about Jane Austen. I adore it. For all my quibbles with Deresiewicz’s lessons, I loved how they made me think more about the books and consider what lessons I would draw from them and why it was I disagreed with his analysis. Could not his ‘lesson’ from Emma of ‘pay attention to everyday things’ just as easily be applied to Northanger Abbey, with its heroine’s attempts to find a resemblance between her own life and her beloved novels? And surely the lesson of Pride and Prejudice of learning from one’s mistakes could just as easily be that of Emma? So, no, I do not agree unreservedly with Deresiewicz’s ‘Austen is telling us this’ and ‘Austen meant this’ statements, which are far too absolute, but I do greatly enjoy reading them. The books mean different things at different points in our lives and no two people’s reading of them will ever be exactly the same, which is precisely what makes it so much fun to constantly reread them and to read books like this which give you an insight into other readers’ minds. I honestly and unreservedly recommend this to all other Janeites.