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A Jane Austen Education

“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.” – William Deresiewicz

When our book club was discerning a few books to read in 2016, my dear friend Diane suggested A Jane Austen Education. I was immediately intrigued by the recommendation. Austen is a favorite of mine but I have never cared much about commentary or literary analysis on her writing. This one, however, looked special.

We scheduled this book for the middle of summer, so that we would have something interesting and substantial, but still lightweight and accessible, for a relaxed summer read. I am thrilled because I will probably read this book three times before the summer is over. It is substantial. Certainly interesting. Easily accessible. Even, relaxed.

The first few sentences drew me in and convinced me that this book was going to have something intriguing to say. Suddenly, however, the language turned crass and the image was offensive. I was panicked. What would the refined readers in my club think about a book that chronicles the exploits of a scoundrel? Nonetheless, it was scheduled and Jane Austen was the subject, so I had to get at least a couple of chapters in and see where it was going to go.

“And that was when I finally understood what Austen had been up to all along. Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact response she wanted me to have. She incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face.”

Ah. Ok. This was a device. Deresiewicz was setting the stage so that he could show his reformation and highlight the power that Austen possesses to reveal human character and highlight human virtue. Deresiewicz could have used slightly less aggressive language, but he was effective.

In this smart little book, we follow Deresiewicz through his graduate school, dissertation, and early teaching years. We watch how each of the Austen novels helped him to confront character flaws in himself while he pulls back the layers of Austen’s writing and shows us some substantially good literary analysis. He is so familiar with Miss Austen, and so well read, that once Emma breaks down his walls, he is able to see so much further below the surface and help us to see as well.

I have been reading Austen since childhood. My mother started me on the films, and when I was old enough to really read well independently, I would read and re-read the Austen canon. Typically I dislike literary criticism of Austen because it feels insincere and forced. Deresiewicz manages to make it feel like we are learning grandma’s secret recipes instead of studying the literary tools and devices that authors use to force their readers into seeing something specific. Deresiewicz seems to genuinely respect the heart and soul of Jane and her writing.

“It wasn’t the words that Austen used that created her effects, it was the way she used them, the way she grouped and balanced them. And so it was, I saw, with her characters. A thousand authors could write novels about ordinary people, but only one of those books would be Emma.”

I think that the first four chapters of this book are the best. They are the most insightful, most technical, and most interesting. The later chapters feel a bit forced. The analysis is good, the historical context is useful, but they don’t fit together with his story quite as neatly. Also, his language degrades and the content becomes more worldly and more crass. Regardless, I am very happy to read and re-read this book as I know that it will give me new insight into, and new enthusiasm for, Austen’s genius. I am particularly looking forward to reading each of her novels alongside its related chapter and looking for the things that he highlights so that I can appreciate them more fully.

Our book group, Potato Peel Pie Book Community, will be reading during July and discussing this book in a special FB book club group. We would love to have you join us! Follow this link and request to join.

Spoiler Warning inside his text: until the chapters on Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, the text is more or less spoiler free. In these final chapters, however, there are spoilers scattered throughout like birdseed. Especially in Sense and Sensibility, Deresiewicz tries to connect Austen’s personal life to her novels and in so doing spills quite a few of the romantic resolutions.

Warning to conservative readers: Just as the later chapters have more spoilers, they also have more crass and offensive language. Up until this point, it was mostly clean cut. At this point, there is an F-word as well as a B-word, and some other crass expressions. It really made me sad to see such a good book tarnished by the shock value of his worldly vernacular. Frankly, it felt very out of place in a story about Jane Austen.

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2 thoughts on “A Jane Austen Education

    1. Perhaps a journal article (something in the neighborhood of 10-12 pages)… but really, until the final two chapters (and the tiny conclusion), it was very substantial.

      I think that it is fair for it to be a book – but I think that he miscarried the intention at the end when he tried to weave Jane’s personal story together with his own and her novels.

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