A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)We have long harbored the belief that everything worth knowing about life and love can be learned in a Jane Austen novel. William Deresiewicz thinks so too, and we could not be happier. In A Jane Austen Education he soundly reaffirms our opinion that the world would be a better place if everyone just paid attention and listened to Jane Austen.

We realize that he is preaching to the choir here, but thought it important to point out that he started out in a much different place as a twenty-six year old graduate student who thought Austen was all girly romance and banal social drivel. He may have been as arrogant as Mr. Darcy, as clueless as Emma Woodhouse and opinionated as Lady Catherine de Bourgh when it came to acknowledging Austen’s understated writing skills and message to her readers, but during the process of reading Emma, one of Austen’s most scrutinized and acclaimed novels, he had an intellectual epiphany. This will certainly grab the attention of half the population. A man admitting that he likes Jane Austen is unusual. Writing a whole book about the process of conversion, understanding what Austen wants to teach us and applying it to his own life, is a revelation! Dear reader. I must curb myself from gushing for fear of losing my credibility.

How William Deresiewicz came to evolve into an enlightened Y-chromosome is one heck of a great story. We are encouraged that other Janeites will think so too. We also hope that his tour through each of the six major novels will convert a few naysayers. Even though he was an associate professor of English at Yale University, he does not talk down to us from an ivory tower. Part literary criticism, part personal memoir and a lot of Austen doctrine, his prose is open, engaging and very humorous. There are several “light bulb” moments. Here is some of the pithy advice he learned from the master.

  • Emma: Pay attention to everyday matters. Be in the moment.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Nobody’s perfect. We are destined to make mistakes. Just learn from them.
  • Northanger Abbey: Life is an adventure. Be open to change and growth.
  • Mansfield Park: Understand the difference between being entertained and being happy. It’s a big one.
  • Persuasion: Be honest. Unconditional friendship serves no one. A true friend remains constant even if the truth hurts.
  • Sense and Sensibility: Love means never having to say you’re sorry! (just kidding) It’s actually the opposite. Healthy conflicts keep relationships sound.

Our favorite chapter was number four – Mansfield Park: Being Good. We regularly seek out opinions on Jane Austen’s controversial novel, considered by some to be her dark horse, hoping for further enlightenment. He certainly nails it on the head by pegging the heroine. “Prim, proper, priggish, prudish, puritanical, Fanny simply couldn’t deal with the threat of adult sexuality. And to top it off, she didn’t even like to read novels.” Characters who do not like to read novels are a red flag in Austen canon, so we were more than a bit piqued on how he was going to deal with this and turn it into an Austen lesson. Fanny Price was the heroine after all. How could Austen make us dislike her? He also admitted that the rest of the characters were “mainly different flavors of awful.” Too true. Paralleling his own life was an adventure of a Jersey boy playing high with rich Manhattanites, and questioning who he was becoming.

“I returned to my dissertation (on Austen), that somehow had already told me everything I needed to know about that world before I’d even encountered it, only I hadn’t been able to listen. For where was I, I finally saw, but smack in the middle of a Jane Austen novel – and one of them, in fact, in particular? What was the realm of luxury and cruelty, glamour and greed, coldness and fun, if not a modern-day version of Mansfield Park?” Page 91

Like Fanny Price during the Mansfield Park theatrical, he realized that he could only ever be a powerless spectator in the alien environment of New York City. He eventually begins to understand Austen’s cunning strategy in the narrative of Mansfield Park and how it applied to his life, his friends and his responses to them. We will not reveal the final outcome, but for those who do not understand Mansfield Park, you might see it in a new light. That alone was worth our price of admission.

We love this book, and not just because it has the best cover we have seen in years (we concede to being swayed by book eye candy), but because it is embodies Austen’s craft of “minute particulars” and reinforces our personal belief system! We were truly agog and enchanted with every word.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz
Penguin Group (2011)
Hardcover (272) pages
ISBN: 978-1594202889

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

18 thoughts on “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

  1. I’m reading Mansfield Park for the first time now, so this is so exciting, even more so than I would be otherwise! I get so excited about anything Austen.

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  2. Sometimes I feel quite alone in the wonderful of Miss Austen because it is decidedly feminine-oriented. Thank God for Mr. Deresiewicz who appears to be a kindred spirit with me and is unashamedly a lover of all things Austen. Finally, a masculine-oriented offering add to my ever-growing must-read list.

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  3. I’m really looking forward to reading this book. I’ve read other reviews but your’s is the one that did the hard sell. I’m ordering the book tonight! Thanks for the post! By the way, Gushing is something I happen to love!

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  4. This is definitely on top of my TBR list. Waiting in line for it in my public library. I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for some years now… good to have a male writer honoring Jane. ;)

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  7. Laurel Anne, I watched the interview clip with William Deresiewicz and read your great review above.

    Have I got this right; he chose six chapters, one each from each of the six complete novels. How did he come about choosing which chapter from each novel to use?
    I know, I must read it to find out myself but could you give us a clue?

    Or did he get his epiphany slowly amassing a burgeoning awarenes from a general immersion in all the novels?
    Emma appears to have provided a Rubicon moment though.

    All the best,
    Tony

    PS We are having great weather over here. What is it like for you?

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    • Tony, Deresiewicz devoted one chapter in his book to each of Austen’s six major novels. Each of the chapters parallel’s events in his own life that he was able to apply lessons from Austen’s plots or characters to and learn from.

      Don’t talk to me of great weather. I live in Washington state. ““South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it.” Mansfield Park, Ch 22

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