I’ve just finished the most fabulous book, recommending it to all of you: A Jane Austen Education, a memoir by William Deresiewicz. The author is a former professor of English and has written a great deal of literary criticism, but it is this candid, forthright, embarrassingly honest portrayal of his evolution from self-absorbed literature geek to, well, a man of good character (a description Jane Austen might have used without flinching) that will become – if we’re all very fortunate – Deresiewicz’s masterpiece.
That’s because the author doesn’t just detail his examination of Austen’s limited oeuvre, books he was initially reluctant to read since they didn’t fit his idea of real literary work, of complicated syntax or manly, action-filled writing, the kind that was the opposite of “girlie”, as Deresiewicz’s putdown of Austen had it. The fact that a wonderfully “manly” writer – and Austen’s contemporary – Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, admitted that he simply could not do what Austen did (“…the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary, commonplace things and characters interesting”), eluded the young Deresiewicz. He was unimpressed.
Yet a college curriculum forced him to read Emma, and in doing so, he recognized that Austen (whom Dickens, years after her death, called a “cynic”) revealed great truths through the minute. Deresiewicz says, “Her ‘littleness’ was really an optical illusion, a test” akin to the parables of Jesus. With each book, Deresiewicz’s mind and spirit grew. He developed patience, humility, and a sense of his place in the world. Like the Grinch, his heart grew multiple sizes, and, Grinch-like, the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, what happened? The only thing that could happen, of course. He met the woman who became the love of his life.
It all sounds pat, does it? Something like a trick, shadows and billowing curtains? Son et lumiêre for Janeites? Not at all. In fact, it was damn hard. Nothing as tough as trying to develop from figurative caterpillar to Lepidoptera, in part because most of our errors are made in public.
From Emma, Deresiewicz learned that small, everyday concerns (what Austen referred to as “particulars”), the warp and weft of our lives, matter greatly. Pride and Prejudice (whose original title was First Impressions) taught him the crucial importance of placing reason over emotion. It was Northanger Abbey’s turn next, and Deresiewicz learned how to learn – how to “strip the paint”, as he put it, from his mind – which made him an infinitely better teacher, one who encouraged his students’ thoughts to flower. From Mansfield Park, whose heroine, Fanny Price, has neither the grace nor the wit of the ever-popular Elizabeth Bennet, he nurtured the sense of goodness that has more in its favor than grace or wit – or money. Persuasion dealt Deresiewicz a kindly slap on the head, demonstrating that friends and kindred spirits are where we find them, sometimes uncomfortably close. And in Sense and Sensibility, he discovered the secret of falling truly, madly, deeply, profoundly in love.
I wish high school teachers would assign this book to all their students, but especially to boys. Austen, though she decided not to marry (she had had her chances), dearly loved her brothers. She did not write for women or girls, but for all people discerning enough to understand her point of view, her detailed, wise, compassionate, witty perspective. To read A Jane Austen Education is to immerse ourselves in her art-of-the-small. If it can affect one young man so greatly, how many others would find their minds and their lives improved by a walkabout through the same territory?