"A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter" (Penguin), by William Deresiewicz: There's nothing quite like meeting another admirer of your favorite author, finding in that person a similar vigor for the close reading of that author's works, and sharing the memories you have of what it was like when you first encountered them.
Such is the experience for me of reading William Deresiewicz's "A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter." I finished the book with two strong impulses: One, to immediately reread everything Jane Austen wrote, with Deresiewicz's book at my side, and two, to invite Deresiewicz — a former Yale University English professor and now a professional literary critic — over for more Austen talk.
Each chapter of his book takes on one of Austen's novels and situates them contextually within various stages of his progression toward adulthood, intertwining his story with hers. He writes with wit, charm and candor, and the result is simply delightful.
It starts with Deresiewicz as a 26-year-old self-styled arrogant rebel walking around "in a cloud of angry sarcasm." And then he's forced to read "Emma" for a graduate school seminar and — I say this without a trace of hyperbole — his entire view of the world starts to change. Suddenly a book that doesn't appear to be about anything important turns into a book about the only things in life that do matter — the small, everyday occurrences that shape us.
Likewise, "Pride and Prejudice" becomes a story about growing up and learning the necessity of tempering our feelings with reason, and of learning from our mistakes. The wealthy, breezy Crawfords of "Mansfield Park" are likened to Manhattan's social elite whom Deresiewicz found himself amid, with both groups ultimately displaying a cripplingly narrow mindset fueled by an utter lack of curiosity.
"Persuasion" is a story foremost about friendship, which Deresiewicz relates to the modern difficulty of forging friendships in adulthood, once everyone's out of school and starting to couple off. The point made each time is nothing new, certainly not to Austen devotees, though it always bears repeating: her work remains ever relevant, to everyone.
Deresiewicz also offers a refreshingly clear cultural and historical reading of each novel, and the combination of the scholarly and the personal provides entirely new ways of looking at novels that I thought I already thoroughly knew. This is how "literary memoir" should be defined — not as a fake autobiography, but as a personal account of reading books that matter.
Janeites face the necessity of defending their favorite author against dismissive detractors who say that Austen's world was too insular, and thus she wrote works of mere romantic confection. Deresiewicz (formerly English, Yale Univ.; Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets) agreed with this sentiment until, as a doctoral student beginning his dissertation in English literature, he began studying Austen's works. He then came to appreciate that Austen was actually a deft, often satirical observer of the society in which she lived. But this book is not strictly literary criticism; it's a memoir. As the son of a harsh, overbearing immigrant father, Deresiewicz developed a detached attitude that served him badly in personal and social relationships. He found that through lessons learned in studying Austen's themes, he was able to subjugate his ego, cultivate kindness, and realize the necessity of perpetual growth in order to live a happy and fulfilling life. VERDICT Of the plethora of books about Austen's life and work, this is a standout as it addresses the timelessness of Austen's themes to prove the personal—and universal—relevance of literature.—Lisa Guidarini, Algonquin P.L., IL
A literary critic confronts his callow youth and finds salvation in the pages of the English romantic novelist.
In the early pages, former Yale English professor Deresiewicz (Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, 2005) recalls being an unlikely candidate for Jane Austen fandom, let alone the Austen scholar he later became. An aficionado of severe modernist bricks likeUlysses, he first readEmmaonly because he was compelled to for a course requirement. But Austen's skewering of contempt and pretentiousness among the English gentry hit home. "[S]he was showing me my own ugly face," he writes. Each of this book's main six chapters is framed around a particular Austen novel, along with a life lesson Deresiewicz took from it. InPride and Prejudice, he learned not to be so quick to judge; throughNorthanger Abbey, he discovered the importance of understanding others' perspectives;Mansfield Parkimparted a message about the perils of social climbing. The structure is somewhat facile, but his command of Austen's life and works is assured, and he's an engaging penitent, exposing his emotional scars without being manipulative. The Mansfield Parkchapter is particularly incisive, drilling deep into his motivations for befriending a set of upper-crust New Yorkers, and bouncing that experience against the emotional parrying in Austen's novel. Deresiewicz's path of discovery has an Austenish arc. After years of dismissiveness toward others, he learned to become openhearted and—how else could a book like this end?—eventually marry his true love. Though he occasionally ventures deep into the weeds elaborating on a novel's particular plot point—some of the dust of his dissertation work sticks to these pages—he's generally careful to keep the book appealing to both Austenites and those looking for a good memoir.
Deresiewicz smartly finds the practical value of Austen's prose without degrading her novels into how-to manuals.
…sharp, endearingly self-effacing…Deresiewicz…has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self…
The New York Times
“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.COM
“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