A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

I hate William Deresiewicz for writing this book—but only because I would have loved to have written it myself. A Jane Austen Education resonates so closely with my own approach to studying the Austen canon—living and learning from Austen’s works, as if from a collection of sacred texts (as the term “canon” suggests to a student of theology like me)—that I can only feel that there is nothing left for me to say.

Well, I really wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that Deresiewicz has accomplished something impressive with this latest addition to Austen studies. Indeed, he has done something I think many Janeites—scholars and lay folks alike—would love to do, exploring the meaning of Austen’s major works, while articulating the impact these novels have on how one understands his or her own life and society. His memoir, therefore, demonstrates perfectly why literary works of art matter, showing that these six popular novels are not mere stories of England’s Regency Period—they are communications of what one highly intelligent person thought being human was all about—sociology, theology, philosophy all rolled into the very comprehensible and down-to-earth package of stories about ordinary women and men.

By doing so, Deresiewicz challenges the perception that Austen’s works are romance novels concerned with fairy-tale marriages only. Indeed, these are not light and airy lessons; they come with an ethic that is certainly Christian and heavy in a particular morality. Although Deresiewicz does not emphasize this religious angle, he does lay out Austen’s religious conclusions rather bluntly. In the chapter on Emma, he says Austen condemns a society of elites whose boredom, rooted in a sense of superiority, only camouflages their inattentiveness to others and lack of charity (12-13). In Mansfield Park, he says Austen shows that “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without” (156), and in Persuasion, he says Austen argues that true friendship is about self-sacrifice and putting one’s friend’s needs before your own (194). As for romantic love, Sense and Sensibility advocates finding partners that challenge one to grow and improve, rather than people who are just like oneself. Indeed, “True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives” (237). And the key to success, as Northanger Abbey reveals, is a continual openness to learning, change, and growth (116), not to mention the ability to distinguish true goodness from specious appearances, as the other five novels also stress. Clearly, then, Austen was not an exponent of “I’m okay, you’re okay,” rather she was critical of popular society and the ignorant, idle, or selfish people who fashion and lead it.  She demanded much of her heroines and heroes precisely because she wanted them to experience a greater level of happiness—one rooted in the disciplined life of a Christian. (Again, the Christian emphasis is my own.)

Deresiewicz’s epiphany moments and subsequent insights help us to see these familiar stories and their characters in a fresh new light. Before reading A Jane Austen Education, I used to dismiss Mr. Woodhouse with his hypochondria and Miss Bates with her prattle as caricatures to be laughed at; but Deresiewicz saw something more at work in them. Mr. Woodhouse may have been obsessed of illness, but this did not devolve into self-absorption, rather he had a remarkable propensity for caring about the welfare of others. And Miss Bates, he reminds us, was a woman who had suffered many disappointments and trials in her life. At times, she may have seemed lost in a sea of trifles, but she was actually just being attentive to those around her and the joys of the present moment. Both Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are happy people, despite their hardships, and so have something to teach Emma and us (29-31). Likewise, in Northanger Abbey, I missed the importance of Catherine’s learning to love a hyacinth, but Deresiewicz saw in that little detail Austen’s moral that it is possible to learn to love (107). This contradicts the idea that love just happens to us, that we are passive “victims” of it, and it says that we can actively seek it and learn to have it for new things we might never have expected to love. Thus, rather than a romantic fatalism we find a philosophical theory of hope rooted in the idea that humans can learn—not bad for a novel branded a Gothic parody.

But what about Deresiewicz’s work as memoir? While the anecdotes he shares about his life are entertaining and well told, they are unremarkable. I do not recall a single one of them with much clarity, except the impressions I have of his unhappy relationship with his father, his friendship with a fatherly professor, his struggles as a graduate student and neophyte teacher, and his journey away from a superficial circle of acquaintances to one of true friends. Of course, I was only interested in the details of Deresiewicz’s life secondarily, as a way of understanding Austen’s novels better. I think this was the author’s intention, and I would say he was successful in his goal of teaching us about Austen and her message by simply telling us how her novels have helped him understand his own life better (or how his life helped him to understand Austen’s novels better).  It is fitting that Deresiewicz was able to glean so much meaning from such ordinary events in his life, since he says Austen herself offers her readers “just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies” (36).  Deresiewicz attempts to tell his story in the same way, and I applaud his efforts, giving A Jane Austen Education four stars and highly recommending it to others.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the master’s of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

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 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

A Trip to the Emerald City to See William Deresiewicz, Author of A Jane Austen Education

The Wizard of Oz (1939)I have to admit I am a homebody. I like my nest and my creature comforts: my computer, my books, my diet Dr. Pepper, my antique iron bed splayed with pillows, and, my Jane Austen. *sigh*

There is no place like home. So says Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. I could not agree more. Dorothy, her little dog Toto and I would have been BFF’s if we had been cast in the same novel. I would of course introduce her to Jane Austen and she would discover (to my delight) that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was in her story too, but, wore black bombazine and flew on a broomstick.

It takes a lot to pull me away from my comfort zone, especially after a long day at work, AND, one of the ten days of the year in the Pacific Northwest when the sun is shining and it is not raining, (I kid you NOT). However, I was determined to drive into the Emerald City (Seattle) and attend the reading and book signing at Elliott Bay Books by author William Deresiewicz. He was speaking about his new book, A Jane Austen Education, which I had recently read and reviewed. I had been agog with his evangelical Janeism and loved every word of it. No, I didn’t really need to be converted, but reading about a man’s personal experience of being transformed from a Jane Austen naysayer to one of her worshipers was a compelling tale that any literature lover and Janeite could relate too. He also throws in some excellent literary criticism and amusing personal stories that make the book very accessible and humorous.

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)I tore myself away from work and hit the road (NO, I did not follow the yellow brick road) in my trusty carriage with detailed Google maps and driving instructions. In the nine years that I have lived near Seattle I have only driven once in the city by myself. I got terribly lost. The wicked one way streets are merciless. This time I made it in one straight shot. Huzzah! The downside was that the parking was $10.00. I hoped the experience would offset the financial setback!

For anyone who has not been to Elliott Bay Books (and I assume that is most of you) it is Seattle’s legendary independent bookstore. Since I work as a bookseller for the world’s largest chain bookstore, we could say that I was walking into the polar opposite in the bookselling universes. It was a refreshing change. The space was open, eclectic and inviting, and, they displayed thousands of books on their cedar lined shelves. Delightful.

The event was about to begin so I rushed up to a friendly staff member who directed me toward the basement reading room. I quickly descended the stairs into a dark cavern room filled with seated attendees and an empty podium. Phew! I had not missed anything. I looked about and immediately recognized the guest of honor standing alone at the back of the room. Bold as brass, I walked right up to him and introduced myself.  (YES! Can you believe?)

Author William Deresiewicz at the A Jane Austen Education Event in Seattle (2011)He was very gracious. My sympathies ran high. Poor authors. They write alone, but must go out into the world to meet their public and promote their books! I imagined all sorts of alarms going off in his head – mostly, over-zealous Jane Austen fan being un-proprietous. All the other attendees were politely seated, patiently waiting for the event to begin, but here I was, a brazen Janeite introducing herself. Shortly into my babbling his face lit up when I said “review on Austenprose!” Big smile. He thanked me for the honor of reading his book and then in turn honored me by saying my review was his favorite so far. He was thrilled that I had totally gotten his message. I blushed, chatted with him briefly, and then took my seat.

The book is broken down into seven chapters. Six devoted to each of Jane Austen’s major novels, and the last is the end of his story of transformation from clueless male graduate student with preconceived notions about silly, boring women’s novels to an enlightened Austen convert applying her lessons to his own life. The author chose three chapters to read excerpts from: Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Deresiewicz is an academic and a skilled orator, so listening to him eloquently introduce his book and read the passages was a delight. Unlike many in the audience (filled with a majority of ladies) I had already read the book and knew which points he would make for each chapter and what was coming. It did not diminish my enjoyment in the least. I always appreciate listening to an author deliver their own prose. You know that it is as real as it gets – and that is exciting and intimate.

At the conclusion, the author opened up the event for questions and answers. Seated one row ahead of me was a group of ladies who asked the majority of questions. All excellent. All obviously well-read Jane Austen fans. Probably Jane Austen Society of North America members. You could really see Mr. Deresiewicz’s academic training serve him well in his replies. He had the audience thinking and laughing. It must have been a great experience to be one of his students.

Frances O'Connor in Mansfield Park (1999)Since Mansfield Park had not been mentioned much during the course of the evening I felt compelled to not let its gentle heroine Fanny Price slip by unacknowledged and asked him about his chapter on it in the book. It appears that I am definitely in the minority of readers who are intrigued by Jane Austen’s most puzzling work. He doesn’t like Fanny Price either. I was relieved to hear another audience member acknowledge that it was one of her favorites of Austen’s novels too.

All in all it was a wonderful experience. As Mr. Deresiewicz signed my copies of his book, I thanked him for the evening and the pleasure of meeting him. Walking back to my car I harbored no ill will what-so-ever over the exorbitant parking fees or Fanny Price for who she is. She may be a prudish prig, but she’s my prudish prig and I admire Austen for giving me the great experience of the reaction to her character. I think Mr. Deresiewicz would agree with me on that point.

“We have all been more or less to blame,” said he, “every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last. She never ceased to think of what was due to you (Sir Thomas). You will find Fanny everything you could wish.” Edmund Bertram, Mansfield Park, Chapter 20

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Penguin Classics On Air Interviews of William Deresiewicz – Author of A Jane Austen Education

I absolutely LOVED this book and cannot gush about A Jane Austen Education enough, REALLY!!! If you need further encouragement, please watch the Penguin Classics On Air video interviews by editorial director Elda Rotor of the author William Deresiewicz. A former Yale professor, he is open and affable and just the right personality to explain Austen’s lessons to a wider audience.

You can read my raving review of A Jane Austen Education here. Bill is on a tour in May and I hope to see him when he hits Seattle next Thursday. I hope to share my impressions of the man who was so moved by Austen’s work that she changed his personal relationships and life.

The Book Tour of A Jane Austen Education

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

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