A Jane Austen Education
How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
The Penguin Press: 258 pp., $25.95
Jane Austen’s keen social observations and delightfully witty, sometimes foolish and occasionally loathsome characters have made her one of our most lasting writers — this year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, “Sense and Sensibility” — and earned her an avid fan base. But with adoring Austen a largely female pursuit, something nags: Can dudes love her too?
That’s what “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter” is ready to reveal. William Deresiewicz, a fortysomething literary critic and former Yale professor, devoted part of his doctoral dissertation to Austen and has published a scholarly book about her, “Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets.” In this new book, he clambers down from the ivory tower and combines deft descriptions of her novels with something more, a memoir of growing up, with insights provided by Austen’s writings.
It begins with the young scholar — hot on literary theory, the Clash and Dostoevsky — coming at Austen with skepticism. “Wasn’t she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales? Just thinking about her made me sleepy,” Deresiewicz writes. He is candid when describing himself as an intellectually ambitious grad student. “I was not the easiest person to get along with. In fact, I wonder that my friends put up with me at all. Like so many guys, I thought that a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics, whatever. But I wasn’t just aggressively certain of myself…. I was also oblivious to the feelings of people around me.”
What turns him around is Austen’s novel “Emma.” The main character charmed Deresiewicz with her certainty and clarity of purpose — which, late in the book, is revealed to be not at all on target. Emma’s dawning awareness parallels Deresiewicz’s growing self-knowledge, and he comes to see Austen’s textual cleverness — she effects a full and surprise reversal on the reader — as having the same literary ambitions he’d looked for in the works of authors like James Joyce.
It makes for a nice circle: Deresiewicz sums up “Emma” with dash, adds a smart critical element and brings it back home to his own life.
The formula seems simple: one chapter for each Austen novel, blended with thoughtful literary analysis and one clear life lesson. It won’t be a spoiler to say that Austenites will predict that this light literary comedy will — and it does — end in marriage.
But after “Emma,” Deresiewicz’s circles just don’t hold together all that well. While he is adept at writing readable plot summaries, his interpretations sometimes feel forced into lessons that don’t entirely fit. “Pride and Prejudice,” he decides, is about feeling free enough to make your own mistakes — with his rhetorical gifts, he can make the case. But I can’t be the only one who thinks “Pride and Prejudice” has a lot to do with the conflicted, buttoned-up, adorable Darcy and his ability to see Elizabeth Bennet clearly, including all her faults, and love her anyway.
What the book lacks is a deep connection to Deresiewicz himself; he’s better at analyzing text than telling his own story. The details of his life crop up without connection. In one chapter he’s a 28-year-old grad student living in the same dorm after several years, with a futon on the floor, a blanket tacked over the window and a fixation on a comely 21-year-old. Probably to the relief of her parents, she didn’t return his affections.
For all we know, he’s self-absorbed and arrogant, but in the next chapter, on the strength of his erudition and wit, he’s hitching a ride into the jet set on the coattails of an old friend. What we don’t see is his evolution, nor does he show us his charm in action. And when he reveals in a late chapter that the most important part of his life was being involved in a Jewish youth movement, it comes as a complete surprise — almost as if we don’t know him at all.
In another writer’s hands, the revealed details might add up to something — a character we understand, a person we care about. In fact, in Jane Austen’s hands, they probably would. But Deresiewicz, as clever a reader as he may be, is not much of a memoirist. He doesn’t sketch out a clear self-portrait on the page — and with this center missing, the lessons he’s learning come across as unfelt and academically constructed.
This is the hazard of embracing a great writer as a subject, or even, as Deresiewicz has done, as a catalyst. As a critic, he has been able to measure up. But as a storyteller, he falls far short: He gets few memorable conversations on the page and creates no indelible characters. In Austen’s long and considerable shadow, he can barely explain himself.