Austen never married, but she did have children, and many more than eight or eleven. Their names are Emma and Elizabeth and Catherine, Anne and Fanny and Elinor and Marianne. Their names are Henry and Edward and Wentworth and Willoughby, Mr. Collins and Miss Bates and Mr. Darcy. They were not long-lived, they are ageless. Had she married Tom or Harris, she might have been happy, she might have been rich, she might have been a mother, she might have even been long-lived herself. She might have been all of these things — but we would not have been who we are, and she would not have been Jane Austen.
(from A Jane Austen Education, pages 245-246)
As a lifelong lover of books, I truly believe that we can learn a lot from reading, and not just in the sense that we broaden our knowledge on various topics. I believe we can learn profound truths about life and change the course of our lives, for the written word has that kind of power. William Deresiewicz was a graduate student at Columbia studying literature. He was interested in mingling with the Manhattan elite, talked about politics and other topics without really caring what other people had to say, and had few romantic relationships that progressed beyond sex. When his professor assigned Jane Austen’s Emma, Deresiewicz had no interest in reading what he expected to be a boring book without a plot. But it didn’t take long for him to see Austen’s genius and apply the lessons he learned from Austen’s novels to his personal and professional lives.
Each chapter in A Jane Austen Education is devoted to one of Austen’s novels and what he believes is the major point Austen wanted to get across. In Emma, Deresiewicz learned that life is about the little, everyday things. In Pride and Prejudice, he learned that making mistakes is part of growing up. In Northanger Abbey, he realized that you have to learn how to learn and how to love things and that life is full of surprises. In Mansfield Park, he began to understand how wisdom is more important than wit and discovered connections between the snobby Bertrams and the crowd with which he was involved. In Persuasion, he learned about true friendship, and in Sense and Sensibility, he learned about growing — not falling — in love.
Deresiewicz shows that Austen’s novels are about so much more than unexpected romance, the need for women to marry and marry well, and the obvious divisions between country folk and high society. Since taking literary theory and other courses for my B.A. in English, I’ve long wondered if academics analyze things too much, looking for symbolism and statements on society that aren’t there. For instance, I took a creative writing course in which we were required to write a poem and present it to the class. I had no idea what to write about, but on my way to my next class, a crow walked across the path in front of me. My poem “A Single Crow” was about someone watching a crow walk across their path on a brisk autumn day, and my professor went on and on about how I did a great job incorporating symbols of death, etc., when it seriously was a poem about a crow! Of course, I didn’t let my professor know that. But it made me wonder whether we sometimes read into things too much, and I question whether authors make detailed plans to incorporate symbols into their books or whether it’s just a coincidence or a matter of interpretation. I think it’s probably a little of both. In A Jane Austen Education, Deresiewicz makes convincing arguments and supports his reasoning behind the things he believes Austen was seeking to accomplish in her works.
A Jane Austen Education provides a candid look into the life of a young man who was lost and how Jane Austen helped him find himself and happiness. Deresiewicz doesn’t hide his faults; he is brutally honest to himself and his readers, and I must admire him for that. It was refreshing to read about Austen’s novels from the point of view of a male reader — and one who didn’t even want to read her books. A Jane Austen Education is perfect for readers who have been touched by Austen’s words, enjoy light memoirs or reading about reading, and even those who haven’t yet read Austen, as Deresiewicz doesn’t give away the endings to the novels. It’s a beautiful tribute to an author whose wit has been dazzling readers for centuries.
Disclosure: I received A Jane Austen Education from Penguin Press for review.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.