A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter
William Deresiewicz (2011, Penguin Books)
Lately, I have complained of memoirs in which the authors congratulated themselves on spiritual development that was not actually on view in the books. A Jane Austen Education is not one of those: the young Billy Deresiewicz is convincingly portrayed as a complete jerk, while the authorial voice is nothing of the sort, but a wise and perceptive fellow. The page-turning suspense of this memoir is finding out how that happened; the surprise is that he can actually tell us.
It was really all a little unlikely--that an arrogant young graduate student, studying literature at Columbia, would fall under the spell of Jane Austen. She sounded so stodgy, so old-fashioned; while, Deresiewicz says, “like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image.” He was sarcastic, self-satisfied, and a thorough pain in the neck.
At first, certainly, Emma lived up, or down, to his expectation of being extraordinarily ordinary: “In my other classes, D. H. Lawrence was preaching sexual revolution and Norman Mailer was cursing his way through World War II, and here I was reading about card parties.” But, as he shares the eponymous heroine’s impatience with the littleness of her small-town society, he falls under the author’s judgement of that impatience: “By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face.” The condescension and cruelty that fall from Emma’s lips at crucial moments deserve the humiliation that inevitably follows, and the young Deresiewicz is, in sympathy and in self-recognition, duly chastened.
So Emma teaches him the beginning of empathy, and the importance of the trivial. From Pride and Prejudice, he discovers that making mistakes is one of the chief ways we learn anything. Being wrong, gloriously, spectacularly wrong, is both a compelling plot point and one of the chief gateways to maturity and happiness--if, like Elizabeth Bennet, you’re lucky enough to be the heroine of the book, or one of her intimates. Flighty younger sisters and indolent trophy wives (like Lady Bertram, in Mansfield Park: “as lovely, energetic and intelligent as an expensive throw pillow,”) make mistakes aplenty, and don’t get to change at all.
He’s getting a moral education, the kind of thing that has for years been deeply out of fashion in graduate schools. It is compelling, nonetheless, especially combined with lively biographical detail about Austen’s life, and close attention to her literary techniques. Her letters, her friendships, and her brothers’ military and marital careers all make up the essential background to her particular genius; through them, Deresiewicz reveals Austen’s dedication to usefulness and good character as accurate predictors and true causes of happiness.
He’s also learning a great deal about writing itself. In contrast to “Joyce’s syntactic labyrinths, Nabokov’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s bleached-bone austerities,” Austen put “everyday words in their natural order--a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, just rolled along as easily as breathing.” Austen awakened in Deresiewicz an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of daily life, and it shows in his writing.
Deresiewicz’s candor about the callowness of his younger days is handled well; he’s neither bragging nor complaining; he can be compassionate to himself without excusing his behavior. A Jane Austen Education is a lovely book, with the delightful side benefit that it leads to more books; in this case, biographies and volumes of Austen’s letters, and of course, the immortal novels themselves. What luxury!