I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. His idea of solitude has inspired my posts “No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude” and “Alone Again… Unnaturally.”
I’ve not seen any pictures of him, but know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.
It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.
So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.
Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.
As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:
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.
That woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:
From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.
Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.
From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.
For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…
By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.
From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.
The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.
From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.
… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?
… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.
From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie “When Harry Met Sally”, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”
A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.
Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.
And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.
To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.
Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, 255 pages.
This article has been published in the Jane Austen Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to go there for more Regency and Austen reads.
CLICK HERE to William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.