A Jane Austen education How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter

William Deresiewicz, 1964-

Book - 2011

Austen scholar Deresiewicz turns to the author's novels to reveal the remarkable life lessons hidden within. With humor and candor, Deresiewicz employs his own experiences to demonstrate the enduring power of Austen's teachings.

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New York : Penguin Press 2011.
Physical Description
255 p. ; 22 cm
Main Author
William Deresiewicz, 1964- (-)
  • Emma: everyday matters
  • Pride and prejudice: growing up
  • Northanger Abbey: learning to learn
  • Mansfield Park: being good
  • Persuasion: true friends
  • Sense and sensibility: falling in love
  • The end of the story.
Review by New York Times Review

A memoir of how Jane Austen's novels transformed one reader's life, and a study of why we still read the 'Lady novelist.' IN 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, "A Jane Austen Education," Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot. At 26, Deresiewicz wasn't experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, "Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone." What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate. Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrinetenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar's expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. "Her life," he lamented, "was impossibly narrow." Her story, such as it was, "seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village." Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates - weren't these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury. The state of outraged hostility is, of course, a setup. Many of Deresiewicz's readers will already know him as the author of the widely admired "Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets." One of the novelist's most appreciative critics isn't about to knock Austen off her plinth. Nevertheless, a profound truth lies embedded in Deresiewicz's witty account of his early animosity. He applies that comic narrative device to her six completed novels. Considered so, each work reveals itself as a teaching tool in the painful journey toward becoming not only adult but (one of Austen's key terms of praise for characters she wishes us to respect) useful. The truth is that young readers don't easily attach themselves to Austen. Mr. Darcy, "haughty as a Siamese cat" (in Deresiewicz's delicious phrase), isn't half as appealing on the page as Colin Firth stalking across the screen in Andrew Davies's liberty-taking film. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland seems coltish and naive to readers of her own age today, while Emma Woodhouse, all of 20, appears loud, vain and bossy. And who, at 27 or thereabouts, now feels sympathy for the meekness of Anne Elliot, a young woman who has allowed a monstrous father and a persuasive family friend to ruin her chances of happiness with the engaging Captain Wentworth? Deresiewicz's emphasis on Austen's lack of appeal to young readers (of whom she was, in life, so fond) struck a chord. The memory still lingers of being taken to lunch by my father to meet a cultured man who might, it must have been hoped, exert a civilizing influence on a willful 20-year-old. We'd barely started on the appetizers before Jane Austen's name came up. "I hate her," I announced, brandishing my scorn as a badge of pride. Invited to offer reasons, I prattled on, much like Deresiewicz's younger self, about her dreary characters: all so banal, so unimportant. Glancing up for admiration, I caught an odd expression on our guest's face, something between amusement and disgust. I carried right on. It was another five years before I comprehended the shameless depths of my arrogance. I had matched Emma - at her worst. It happens that Emma at her worst is the turning point in Deresiewicz's account of his own conversion. The fictional scene that taught him to understand the subtlety of Austen's manipulation of the reader was the picnic at which Emma, cocksure as ever, orders gentle Miss Bates to restrict her utterance of platitudes during the meal. ("Pardon me - but you will be limited as to number - only three at once.") Miss Bates blushes painfully, and yet accepts the truth of Emma's critique. The reader has no option but to admire, however grudgingly, such quiet humility. Although he's a shrewd critic of Austen's work, Deresiewicz is less at ease when entering the genre of memoir. Girlfriends come and go; a controlling father is described without ever being quite brought to life; personal experiences of community in a Jewish youth movement are awkwardly yoked to the kindly naval group evoked by Austen in the Harville-Benwick household of "Persuasion." Very occasionally, as in a startling passage that offers a real-life analogy to the socially ambitious Crawfords of "Mansfield Park," a sentence leaps free of Deresiewicz's selective recollections. "You guys are lunch meat now," a friend's rich wife advises both him and her husband. "Wait a few years - you'll be sirloin steak." Here, slicing up through the text like a knife blade, surfaces a statement to match Austen's own scalpel-wielding. Teaching became Deresiewicz's chosen vocation. And Austen, he claims, taught him the difficult art of lecturing without being didactic, in just the way that Henry Tilney instructs a wide-eyed Catherine Morland - and that Austen herself lays down the law to her readers. (She is, beneath the glitter and wit, a stern moralist.) RACHEL M. Brownstein's "Why Jane Austen?" offers a different approach. Excellent in her overview of Austen's ascent of the Olympian literary slope, Brownstein speaks down to her readers from an equally dizzy height. Pity the "smart, eloquent and clubbable" former pupil Brownstein names and thanks for having, at the end of the term, "helpfully clarified things by telling me what I had been saying." Ouch. Students, Brownstein loftily declares, are best introduced to Austen's novels by being informed, for example, that the title "Mr. Knightley of Don well Abbey" conceals the code words "knightly" and "donewell." No indication is given that this formidable tutor would embrace the collaborative observations from her pupils that Deresiewicz has learned to welcome and enjoy. Brownstein remains, however, a superb critic, seen at her best when illuminating Austen's mastery of significant detail - a quality, she reminds us, Walter Scott was quick to discern and praise. Exasperated though I was when Brownstein remarked that partaking of the daily feasts at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center (an unattainable paradise for most hardworking writers) presented her with a "moral" obligation, I'd gladly forgive worse for the pleasure of learning how artfully Austen sows our mistrust of her nastier characters. (Haughty Sir Walter Elliot's attachment to his face lotions provides one of Brownstein's keenly plucked examples.) I have, however, one suggestion. Brownstein, almost as socially obsessed as her elegant scapegoat of choice, Lionel Trilling, dithers over exactly where to place Austen. Snobs, she declares, without much evidence, are among the novelist's firmest fans. But Austen belonged neither to the aristocracy nor to the rising middle class. There's no need for her to be pigeonholed, but if a place must be granted, how about "vicarage class" - for the position from which a parson's clever daughter could observe the mannered comedy of all walks of life? William Deresiewicz once loathed not just Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists. Miranda Seymour is the author, most recently, of "Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill," and a memoir, "Thrumpton Hall."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 12, 2011] Review by Library Journal Review

Janeites face the necessity of defending their favorite author against dismissive detractors who say that Austen's world was too insular, and thus she wrote works of mere romantic confection. Deresiewicz (formerly English, Yale Univ.; Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets) agreed with this sentiment until, as a doctoral student beginning his dissertation in English literature, he began studying Austen's works. He then came to appreciate that Austen was actually a deft, often satirical observer of the society in which she lived. But this book is not strictly literary criticism; it's a memoir. As the son of a harsh, overbearing immigrant father, Deresiewicz developed a detached attitude that served him badly in personal and social relationships. He found that through lessons learned in studying Austen's themes, he was able to subjugate his ego, cultivate kindness, and realize the necessity of perpetual growth in order to live a happy and fulfilling life. VERDICT Of the plethora of books about Austen's life and work, this is a standout as it addresses the timelessness of Austen's themes to prove the ­personal-and universal-relevance of literature. -Lisa Guidarini, Algonquin P.L., IL (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A literary critic confronts his callow youth and finds salvation in the pages of the English romantic novelist.In the early pages, former Yale English professor Deresiewicz (Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, 2005) recalls being an unlikely candidate for Jane Austen fandom, let alone the Austen scholar he later became. An aficionado of severe modernist bricks likeUlysses, he first readEmmaonly because he was compelled to for a course requirement. But Austen's skewering of contempt and pretentiousness among the English gentry hit home. "[S]he was showing me my own ugly face," he writes. Each of this book's main six chapters is framed around a particular Austen novel, along with a life lesson Deresiewicz took from it. InPride and Prejudice, he learned not to be so quick to judge; throughNorthanger Abbey, he discovered the importance of understanding others' perspectives;Mansfield Parkimparted a message about the perils of social climbing. The structure is somewhat facile, but his command of Austen's life and works is assured, and he's an engaging penitent, exposing his emotional scars without being manipulative. The Mansfield Parkchapter is particularly incisive, drilling deep into his motivations for befriending a set of upper-crust New Yorkers, and bouncing that experience against the emotional parrying in Austen's novel. Deresiewicz's path of discovery has an Austenish arc. After years of dismissiveness toward others, he learned to become openhearted andhow else could a book like this end?eventually marry his true love. Though he occasionally ventures deep into the weeds elaborating on a novel's particular plot pointsome of the dust of his dissertation work sticks to these pageshe's generally careful to keep the book appealing to both Austenites and those looking for a good memoir.Deresiewicz smartly finds the practical value of Austen's prose without degrading her novels into how-to manuals.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.