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