A Jane Austen Education

It's spring, 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 of an academic tome called Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, he's now taken a less formal look at Austen as a kind of guru on the subject of—to borrow the title of another recent book in the same vein—how to live, and he casts his story first and foremost as an affair for the ages. To wit, his opening gambit: "I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six year old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life."


Their romance unfolded along what can only be seen as a very Austen-ish timeline. Like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse before him, Deresiewicz got off on the wrong foot with his beloved, thanks to his own immaturity:  "Wasn't she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales?" he grouses upon learning in graduate school that Austen is required reading. "Just thinking about her made me sleepy." A cynic who worships at the altar of Modernism and stalks the streets of Manhattan in a trench coat with a copy of Catch-22 in the pocket, he can't imagine what he has to learn from the kind of novel in which "reading the mail was the highlight of everyone's day."


The answer, of course, is everything—or so he claims in six chapters, each devoted to the particulars of one Austen novel and the insights about human nature and relationships to be found therein. From Emma, he learns that "the things that happen hour by 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, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most…is yourself"; from Mansfield Park that "the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without"; and from Persuasion that "we make our friends our family, but we also 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 "love is not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it's something you have to prepare yourself for," one wonders whether even Austen herself, who was no fool when it came to understanding the power and subtleties of her talents, would be willing to take so much of the credit. It seems a fair bet that Deresiewicz would have figured out a lot of this stuff along the way anyway, as most of us do, Jane notwithstanding. That the woman who would become his wife just happens to appear at the moment when he has finished his last Austen novel and is thus supremely relationship-ready only adds to the sense that he might be over-reaching just a tad. It's hard to quarrel with loving Jane Austen, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the idea that 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. In particular, the passages he's chosen from her letters are like little gems scattered throughout the book. She was clearly born to be both confidante and adviser: the missives in which she slyly takes down the attendees of a local dance one by one or picks apart local customs with a gimlet eye are as bright and hilarious as those in which she counsels her young niece about marriage and the future are moving.


As for the non-Austen aspects of the book, they are mostly tales of Deresiewicz's less successful loves, familial, ideological, and otherwise, including his difficult relationship with his father, a youthful passion for Israeli kibbutzim, an infatuation with an exclusive clique of wealthy peers, and various girlfriends. If all of this is necessary in a book about a young man's emotional coming-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 of those marvelous letters from the great beyond—that would be the highlight of the day, indeed.

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