Blurb for A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz
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.
Always having been a firm believer in the educational property of books, I recently came to the conclusion I should read more non-fiction to expand my general knowledge and diversify my reading palate (“palette?” I feel like either would work, here). This guy caught my eye at a thrift store, and I thought it seemed like as good a place as any to start. I happen to love Jane Austen’s novels and think that everybody can enjoy them, and maybe even, like this author, learn something from them.
Right from the get-go, Deresiewicz has an engaging style that paints vivid scenarios and leads us along his thought processes. Though at times his chapters are a little meandering and he could get to his point in a much more linear fashion, this is not an academic essay, so it’s understandable. He’s easy to read and sometimes pretty hilarious as he describes his first encounters with Austen’s works as a self-important undergrad who thought Pride and Prejudice was chick-lit not up to the calibre of the other great novelists. Through study of Austen’s works, Deresiewicz’ own prejudices are challenged and he comes to appreciate the nuance, keen observation, and craft that give her novels their realism and timelessness.
Deresiewicz divides his book into six sections, one for each of Austen’s finished novels, and identifies some large thematic “lesson” his study of each novel gave him. He of course identifies some of the more technical achievements of Austen—such as the free-indirect discourse she is famed for “inventing,” or at least perfecting—as well as providing enough context and summary of the novels that anyone can follow along with his points as he presents them, even if you haven’t read all of Austen.
That being said, this is not a critical analysis of any of Austen’s texts; this is a critical analysis of Deresiewicz’s own life and mental development, in concert with his acquired knowledge of Austen. I was led to think in new ways about Austen, and consider some of her works from a different perspective than I had myself, or when I studied them in university, but to look at A Jane Austen Education and expect to gain education about Austen is to miss the main point. The subtitle reveals exactly what the book is about: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Deresiewicz’s book is an autobiographical one about how Austen helped educate him about himself and the world, in the same way that Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man is about how his experiences and reading widely affected his own mental development and life, not a critical examination of any of the many texts he read for the purpose of replicating his curriculum. The focus is not on the theoretical frame of the literature in its literary context—it is on direct, real-world parallels, applications, and “truth universally acknowledged.”
Many of the themes Deresiewicz extracted are prevalent in our consciousness and so are no surprise, or even that profound, but I was again amazed by how relevant to the world and life today Austen remains in many of her specifics, as opposed to just the generalities. Because human nature doesn’t change, and society, however much we may think it has evolved, simply carries on in parallel courses to how it ever did, just with different names and different standards. A flake is a flake whether it’s a turn of the 18th century dandy riding a whole day away to get a haircut instead of keeping other commitments, or a 21st century friend who raves over your plans when you make them only to bail for no reason on the day; the need to consider economy in marriage is the need to consider economy whether it’s trying to land a gentleman with ₤10,000 a year in the Regency Era, or trying to marry a doctor in modern times; snobbery is snobbery whether it’s the titled family sneering at the poor relation back then, or the affluent middle class treating service workers like lesser-than now.
Austen was a keen observer and simulator of human behaviour, mentality, and society, and her novels are packed with subtlety and wit that is sometimes easy to miss if you’re bent on simply following the train of events, pitfalls, and engagements of the plot. Deresiewicz’s book encourages readers to pick up on the little things, in Austen as well as in their lives, and enjoy the variety of relationships, personalities, and dynamics around them with understanding, humour, and kindness. That’s what makes Austen’s novels, as well as our own experience, rich.