A Jane Austen Education

It’sspring, and as such, love is in the air—perhaps nowhere more so than in A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz’s encomium to the humor,wisdom, and perennial appeal of his main literary squeeze. Also the author ofan academic tome called Jane Austen andthe Romantic Poets, he’s now taken a less formal look at Austen as akind of guru on the subject of—to borrow the title of another recent book inthe same vein—how to live, and he casts his story first and foremost as anaffair for the ages. To wit, his opening gambit: “I was twenty-six, andabout as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six year old has a right tobe, when I met the woman who would change my life.”

Their romance unfoldedalong what can only be seen as a very Austen-ish timeline. Like ElizabethBennett and Emma Woodhouse before him, Deresiewicz got off on the wrong footwith his beloved, thanks to his own immaturity:  “Wasn’t she the one who wrote those silly romanticfairy tales?” he grouses upon learning in graduate school that Austen isrequired reading. “Just thinking about her made me sleepy.” A cynicwho worships at the altar of Modernism and stalks the streets of Manhattan in atrench coat with a copy of Catch-22 in the pocket, he can’t imagine what he has tolearn from the kind of novel in which “reading the mail was the highlightof everyone’s day.”

The answer, of course, iseverything—or so he claims in six chapters, each devoted to the particulars ofone Austen novel and the insights about human nature and relationships to befound therein. From Emma, he learns that “the things that happen hourby hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard,what your neighbor did…[are] what the fabric of our years really consists of”;from Pride and Prejudice that “growing up means making mistakes”;from Northanger Abbey that “Life, if you live it right, keepssurprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most…is yourself”;from Mansfield Park that “the only people who can really feel arethose who have a sense of what it means to do without”; and from Persuasion that “we make our friends our family, but wealso make our family—or some of them—our friends.”

By the time he gets to Sense and Sensibility and his newfound appreciation of the truth that “loveis not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something youhave to prepare yourself for,” one wonders whether even Austen herself,who was no fool when it came to understanding the power and subtleties of hertalents, would be willing to take so much of the credit. It seems a fair betthat Deresiewicz would have figured out a lot of this stuff along the wayanyway, as most of us do, Jane notwithstanding. That the woman who would becomehis wife just happens to appear at the moment when he has finished his lastAusten novel and is thus supremely relationship-ready only adds to the sensethat he might be over-reaching just a tad. It’s hard to quarrel with lovingJane Austen, but the same cannotnecessarily be said for the ideathat she’s the only guide you need to find the path to fulfillment.

Perhaps for this reason,Deresiewicz is at his best when he’s either writing directly about Austen,rather than in reaction to her books, or letting her speak for herself. Inparticular, the passages he’s chosen from her letters are like little gemsscattered throughout the book. She was clearly born to be both confidante andadviser: the missives in which she slyly takes down the attendees of a localdance one by one or picks apart local customs with a gimlet eye are as brightand hilarious as those in which she counsels her young niece about marriage andthe future are moving.

As for the non-Austenaspects of the book, they are mostly tales of Deresiewicz’s less successfulloves, familial, ideological, and otherwise, including his difficultrelationship with his father, a youthful passion for Israeli kibbutzim, aninfatuation with an exclusive clique of wealthy peers, and various girlfriends.If all of this is necessary in a book about a young man’s emotionalcoming-of-age, it is nevertheless a bit much at times. One longs, in the end,to sit down with Austen herself for a good chat, or at least to receive one ofthose marvelous letters from the great beyond—that would be the highlight ofthe day, indeed.