A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

by William Deresiewicz
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

by William Deresiewicz


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Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same. Honest, erudite, and deeply moving, A Jane Austen Education is the story of one man’s discovery of the world outside himself.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143121251
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 298,960
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

About The Author
WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ is a widely published book critic and the author of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. He was nominated for National Magazine Awards in 2008, 2009, and 2011 and the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2010 and 2011.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Temma: Everyday Matters 1

Chapter 2 Pride and Prejudice: Growing Up 39

Chapter 3 Northanger Abbey: Learning to Learn 77

Chapter 4 Mansfield Park: Being Good 119

Chapter 5 Persuasion: True Friends 165

Chapter 6 Sense and Sensibility: Falling in Love 203

Chapter 7 The End of the Story 247

Acknowledgments 257

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Sharp, endearingly self-effacing... a profound truth lies embedded in Deresiewicz’s witty account.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“Like Austen, Deresiewicz is lucid, principled and knows how to think as well as how to feel, without ever sacrificing one to the other…. a delightful and enlightening book. —SLATE

“An entertaining and original version of literary criticism—as autobiography.” —THE SEATTLE TIMES

“With A Jane Austen Education, Deresiewicz writes with discerning wit and quiet perception about the lessons in friendship, empathy, honesty, happiness, and love he learns from each of Austen's immortal novels.” —CHICAGO TRIBUNE

“[Deresiewicz] is charming on the page. He talks about literary characters as if they were real people, and about Austen as if she lived at the end of the block…he does so in a style that comes across as fresh and conversational, like a genuinely witty bibliophile you’d like to talk with at a party." —LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

“[Deresiewicz] writes with wit, charm and candor, and the result is simply delightful." —ASSOCIATED PRESS

Reading Group Guide

William Deresiewicz begins A Jane Austen Education by confessing an initial condescension toward nineteenth–century British literature in general and Jane Austen in particular. He prefers the more difficult modern novelists—Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad, Nabokov. Why waste your time, he thinks, on the trifling romantic problems and daily gossip of the British upper–crust when you can wrestle with the weighty themes and linguistic acrobatics of world–class intellects? Such was the attitude of the arrogant, narcissistic graduate student William Deresiewicz, a young man who, not surprisingly, had trouble sustaining his relationships.

But as he studies Austen, with the help of an engagingly Socratic professor, Deresiewicz begins to see what Austen is really up to beneath the smooth and seemingly uneventful surfaces of her novels. More important, he sees that Austen is in fact shining a very bright light on his very own shortcomings.

A Jane Austen Education explores each of Austen’s six novels, and in each Deresiewicz uncovers a lesson that applies directly, often uncannily so, to his own life. He learns that Austen’s apparently pointless passages of “trivial” dialogue are actually her way of honoring her characters, their lives, their daily concerns. He sees that his own attempts to seem serious and important are in fact pretentious and off–putting. He doesn’t listen to his friends, he makes speeches designed to impress them. Austen shows him that the stories we tell about our daily lives—and more important, how we listen to the stories of others—are where the real action is, not in lofty discourses or complicated language games or melodramatic adventures. He learns from Austen that “every life is eventful, if only you know how to look at it” (p. 27).

How you look at things—at your conversations, at your friends, your lovers, your teachers, your students, the novels you’re reading—makes all the difference. Again and again, Deresiewicz returns to Austen’s novels to find something significant he missed on first reading. In doing so he discovers that many of his cherished assumptions are wrong.

He finds that Austen, who died nearly two hundred years ago and never married, has much to teach him about his own life—about how to grow up, how to be a better teacher and friend, what wealth and comfort can do to people, what true love looks like, and much more.

In a time that has largely abandoned the notion of reading literature for moral guidance, Deresiewicz offers a refreshing reminder that great books really can help us live our lives. His willingness to show readers precisely how Austen helped him become a better person—a more empathic, generous, useful person—requires him to reveal just how badly mistaken he was about almost everything that matters and just what a insensitive, self–important young man he was. Doing so requires a great deal of humility—a quality which he learned, of course, from Jane Austen herself.



William Deresiewicz was an associate professor of English at Yale University until 2008 and is a widely published book critic. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, and The American Scholar. He was nominated for the National Magazine Award in 2008, 2009, and 2011 and the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2010 and 2011. He is the author of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets.



Q. How did you hit upon the idea writing a memoir about your relationship to Jane Austen’s novels?

It actually happened by accident. I was having an interview for an academic job, and at the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my résumé—there were three projects I had either written or was planning to write, and all of them had the words “Jane Austen” in the title—she asked, “So what’s with you and Jane Austen?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, I just blurted out a phrase that had already been rolling around in my head for a long time. “Well,” I said, “sometimes I just feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen.” And she said, “That would make a great book.”

I thought about it for a while and realized she was right. But I also realized that if I was going to write about the lessons I had learned from Jane Austen, I would need to write about the way I had learned them. In other words, I would have to write a memoir, which was going to involve a lot of excruciating honesty.

Q. Were you surprised at just how many uncanny correspondences you found between the challenges in your own life and those faced by Austen’s characters?

Absolutely. I had never had such a personal relationship with an author before, and I certainly never expected a woman novelist, writing about upper–class English girls who only wanted to get married, to speak so directly to my own experience—someone who wasn’t upper–class, or English, or a girl, and who certainly didn’t want to ever get married. Now, of course, I realize that those prejudices were absurd. Austen, like every great writer, wrote about eternal problems. Though I should say that when I taught her books to college students, a lot of them (and not necessarily only the boys) would have the same resistance, even though they were perfectly willing to accept that someone like Homer or Shakespeare could speak to what they were going through.

Q. In reading Austen for the life lessons her novels provide you’re committing a kind of academic apostasy. Why do you think most academics stopped reading literature in this way?

I think that kind of reading got a bad name during the Victorian era, when literature was reduced to nothing but moral instruction, often of the most clichéd and conventional kind. It was not only didactic and sentimental, it also tended to ignore the artistic qualities of a poem or novel or play. Modernism, the kind of literature I loved the most before I encountered Austen, was a reaction to that. Art for art’s sake, as they said: the notion that literature could serve any practical or moral function, could help you live your life, was regarded as vulgar. Since it was that period that gave rise to the academic study of literature as we know it, those attitudes were simply taken up as part of the profession. You were only supposed to study a work’s artistic features (or, more recently, its political implications), so that everything personal was taken out. It’s not just by talking about life lessons that I’m committing apostasy, it’s by talking about myself at all. You’re supposed to be objective, supposed to pretend you’re a kind of scientist. Which to me defeats the purpose of reading literature in the first place. I don’t read that way, and I didn’t teach that way.

Q. What does your graduate adviser, the teacher you write about at length in the chapter on Northanger Abbey, think of A Jane Austen Education?

To my enormous sorrow, he didn’t live to see the book completed. One of my deepest hopes was that he would get to read it before it was too late—in some sense the whole thing was an homage to him—but I actually ended up learning of his death the day I started writing that chapter. It was quite devastating. My only consolation has been that I’ve been able to share the book with his family and my fellow students—and also, of course, that I’ve been able to preserve his memory in print.

[Note: That is why the book is co–dedicated to “the memory of Karl Kroeber.”]

Q. What was the most surprising lesson you learned from reading Austen?

I think the most surprising, and in some ways the most profound, was that my feelings could be wrong. Like everybody else these days, I had absorbed the belief that our feelings have a kind of absolute validity: that we have a “right” to them, whatever that means, that they are “true,” that no one can question them. But Austen believed that reason was more important than feeling, that feelings need to be examined. Put it this way: feelings are always based on perceptions—what you think someone said or did or whatever. What if those perceptions are wrong—aren’t the feelings also wrong? That’s exactly what Elizabeth Bennet learns in her big confrontation with Mr. Darcy, and that’s what I learned by reading about it. And though this lesson has often been humbling, it’s also liberating. I can let go of my feelings when I realize they’re mistaken. I don’t have to insist on having them “validated.”

Q. Austen clearly helped prepare you for marriage. Has she continued to provide guidance for the challenges of married life?

Very much so. The whole way I’ve learned to deal with conflict comes from her. Partly it’s a matter of what I was just talking about. Partly it’s the understanding that if I can manage to bring myself to admit that I’m wrong, as painful and humiliating as it might be, there could be a reward in the end: I could learn something, I could grow, I could become a better person not just for my wife but for myself. Austen also taught me that being a good friend means being honest, as uncomfortable as that often is for both people involved.

And of course, my wife is a huge Jane Austen fan, so that’s something that we love to share.

Q. Was it difficult to present yourself as a self–important, narcissistic young man in the book?

Yes! It was excruciating. I’m actually a very private person, believe it or not. Some of the scenes I write about were hard enough simply to revisit on my own, let alone think about sharing with thousands of strangers. Really, I think on a certain level I’m just in denial about it.

Q. Are there any other writers who’ve been similarly instructive for you? What writers are most important to you right now?

Well, no one has come close to Jane Austen, and I don’t think anyone ever can, if only because I read her during a time in my life, the transition to adulthood, that can only happen once. But yes, other writers have been important to me. After finishing my dissertation chapter on Pride and Prejudice, I wrote the next one on Middlemarch, which gave me a whole new perspective on some of the same issues—especially when it means to grow up. Austen it is about becoming an adult; George Eliot is about being one, with all the disappointment and compromise that inevitably involves.

Right now I’m immersed in a very different group of writers, the New York intellectuals and other Jewish writers from the middle of the last century: Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Bernard Malamud, Leslie Fiedler, Herbert Gold. Now that I’m a full–time writer, I look to them as my role models and intellectual forebears. Obviously, a very different group of people from Jane Austen and George Eliot—for one thing, they’re all men—but one of the first lessons Austen taught me was not to worry about those sorts of labels.

Q. What are you working on now?

A very different project, though one that ultimately connects to the story I tell in A Jane Austen Education. It’s an expansion of an essay I wrote a few years ago called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” based on my experiences as a professor at Yale as well as my own time as a student at Columbia, about how the whole game of elite college admissions and everything that leads up to it in high school (and follows from it in college) gives kids the wrong idea about what education is for and indeed what life is for. So it’s another book about values and also about education, and like the Jane Austen book, it originated from my own reeducation, from becoming aware of the ways I had been educated wrongly and what I needed to do to live a more fulfilled life.

  • How does Deresiewicz overcome his initial disdain for Austen? In what other instances does he have to take a second look at what Austen is saying in order to truly understand her?
  • Deresiewicz writes that Austen “knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else’s stories—entering into their feelings, validating their experiences—is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness” (p. 161). Why do stories—both when we tell them and when we listen to them—have this power to reveal and acknowledge our humanity?
  • Deresiewicz writes that, for Austen, “love is not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something you have to prepare yourself for” (p. 220). What other myths about romantic love do Austen’s novels puncture? How does Austen help Deresiewicz prepare for the woman he will marry?
  • In Austen’s view, what is the most important quality one should look for in a mate?
  • How is Austen able to offer such wise guidance about love and marriage despite having been unmarried herself? Why did she choose not to marry?
  • Is Deresiewicz right when he argues that, in the modern world, community can’t be found in a structure, like a kibbutz or commune, or in the kind of youth movement he experienced as a teenager, but only in “a circle of friends”? (p. 181). What is it about modern life that makes traditional forms of community unworkable? In what ways does Austen anticipate this development in Persuasion?
  • In the chapter on Northanger Abbey, what does Deresiewicz learn, both from Jane Austen and from his professor, about being a teacher? How does his approach to teaching change?
  • Deresiewicz finds a subtle critique of the aristocracy in Austen’s novels. How do aristocrats typically come off in her books? In what ways are they stunted by wealth and comfort? How does Mansfield Park change his perception of his own circle of wealthy, elegant friends in New York City?
  • What are the major aesthetic differences, in Deresiewicz’s view, between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë? Why does Deresiewicz prefer Austen? Why would he appropriate Brontë’s famous declaration in Jane Eyre—“Reader, I married him”—to end his own book?
  • How has reading A Jane Austen Education changed your understanding or deepened your appreciation of Jane Austen?


An Interview with William Deresiewicz, author of
How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter
The Penguin Press / May 2011

Can you describe your initial resistance, as a young graduate student, to reading Jane Austen?

Like a lot of men, I thought Austen was chick lit: soap-opera romance, fluffy and boring. When a friend of mine heard I was writing this book, he said "I expect a lot of sex and dating advice." It was an understandable assumption, and my friend's, no doubt, was based on all those movies—the ones with the beautiful gowns, and the beautiful homes, and the beautiful actresses. The ones with all the swoony music and the lush, romantic lighting, the ones that leave out everything that Austen had to say to us except the love—and then, don't even get the love part right.

What most surprised you about yourself once you discovered Austen's novels and started examining your own life?
If you had told me, when I was eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, that the most important writer I would ever come across would be Jane Austen, I would have said you were crazy. Why should half a dozen novels about provincial young English ladies, published in the 1810s, make any difference whatsoever to a Jewish kid in New York in the 1990s? But I learned that books aren't written by groups, and they don't belong to groups. They're written by individuals, speaking to individuals, and they belong to anyone who loves them.
What was Austen saying to me? Well, first of all, what an idiot I had been about so many things--about pretty much everything to do with relationships. And that I had so much to learn from seeing things from a woman's point of view. But most of all, finally, I think, that I didn't have to be afraid to learn things about myself--didn't have to be afraid, in other words, to be wrong. Aside from all the specific lessons, I think the largest message was simply that I no longer had to be so armored, so defended, so defensive. And that's made it easier to admit mistakes and be vulnerable and keep on growing.

Is that when you came up with the book's subtitle, "How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter"?
Well, a while ago, I was interviewing for a job as an English professor. At the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my resume—I had written my doctoral dissertation on The Novel of Community from Austen to Modernism, published a book entitled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, and was planning a study called Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston—she asked, "So what's with you and Jane Austen?"
I wanted to give [the dean] her a good answer. But how do you explain your deepest attachments? I tried to muster an intellectually sophisticated response, something about the purity of Austen's prose or the brilliance of her satire, but it didn't feel right, and besides, I'd already given enough answers like that. Finally, I just blurted something that I'd already been telling myself for a long time. "Well," I said, "sometimes I feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen."

What drew you to write this hybrid of memoir and literary criticism?
I've been writing about literature for a general audience for a long time, as a book critic. Actually, the fact that I was more interested in doing that than in pursuing scholarly work is the reason I decided to leave academia. The memoir part is new for me, though, and it's been an interesting challenge: a technical challenge to blend the two and a personal challenge to be so candid in such a public way. The second part is a little frightening. As for why I decided to write the book this way, well, the idea was to convey the lessons I learned by reading Jane Austen, and I realized pretty quickly that the best way to do that would be to actually talk about how I learned them, not just explain them in some kind of abstract and impersonal way.

What do you think her books have to say to contemporary men and women in want of a relationship?
Ha! Great question. The first thing I think she would say is, don't settle. Then, marry for the right reasons: for love, not for money or appearances or expectations. But most importantly--and this is what I talk about in the love chapter, the last chapter--don't fall for all the romantic clichés about Romeo and Juliet and love at first sight. For Austen, love came from the mind as well as the heart. She didn't believe you could fall in love with someone until you knew them, and then what you fell in love with was their character more than anything else--whether they were a good person and also an interesting one. So I guess that means, date someone for a while before you commit, and don't get so carried away by your feelings that you forget to give a good hard look at who they are. As for sex, it's not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would've liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it's too late.

What do you hope your book will bring to people who aren't already Austen fans?
Well, first of all, if they aren't already Austen fans because they have the kinds of preconceptions I did, I hope it helps persuade them to give her a chance. I've imagined the book, in part, as a kind of introduction to her [books] novels. It's not exhaustive or anything--and I think that people who are already Austen fans will find new ways to think about her novels--but it does lay out the basic situations in each book and some of the most important ideas she was getting at. No spoilers, just enough to whet people's appetites. And finally, of course, I want people to see that she isn't just for women. I would love it if the book helped introduce more guys to her work.

What is your favorite Austen novel?
I knew people would ask me this. The weaseling answer is that I love them all, though it's also true. Certainly whenever I'm reading one, that's my favorite. But if I had to pick just one, desert-island style, it would have to be Emma. Not just because it was my first and will always have a special place in my heart, but because I really do think it's the best, the one where she put it all together: the brilliant sparkle of Pride and Prejudice, the emotional depth of Persuasion, the fun, the humor, the superhuman cleverness. There really is nothing else like it.

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