2011 A Jane Austen Education

16 August 2011

“Feelings are also the primary way we know about novels- which, after all, are training grounds for responding to the world, imaginative sanctuaries in which to hone and test out ethical judgements and choices. Our feelings are what novelists work with, the colors on their palette.”

As a graduate student, William Deresiewicz was introduced to Austen by being forced to read Emma for a class. He slogged through it, not really enjoying it, but when he got to the end and read about Emma’s lessons learned, he realized that he himself could do with a bit of those same lessons. That got him started on the journey into Austen’s world. This book is half memoir/confession, half literary analysis. Each of Austen’s novels merit a chapter that also gives details on a period of his life in which he most needed the lessons he learned from the particular book.

Reading another person’s observations and thoughts about some of my own favorite books was incredibly interesting, and the fact that this person was just about as different from myself as is possible to be made it even more so. First of all, he’s a guy. Secondly, he had, and still has to a lesser extent, a very worldly point-of-view compared to my own conservative, religious one. Thirdly, his personality is quite different from my own as well.

There was a lot Deresiewicz said that I agreed with and even thought profound. His willingness to examine his own life and attitudes, to dig and think and find principles, and finally to apply them to his life is very admirable. I liked how he was able to draw comparisons between what is attractive and what is right. I liked how he took each novel, including Northanger Abbey, seriously. I liked how he talked about his professor that helped him to rethink ideas he had taken for granted. I liked that Fanny Price got her due as a true heroine (even if she had to work to prove herself…Fanny is never afraid of hard work)! I especially liked to hear about his thought processes, and how he came to grow and learn and pick out certain principles.

There were some things that I didn’t care for in his book. I did not agree with every conclusion he drew. The chapter on Persuasion was especially disappointing, when he wrote about how Anne Elliot had to distance herself from her family. Yes, to a certain extent she does, but he goes even further to say that her family no longer really matters to her. He also draws a parallel to Elizabeth Bennet in this regard, and says that she does not care about her younger siblings. (That must be why Elizabeth is so distraught over their behavior. Yes, I know their behavior reflects poorly upon her, and she is of course aware of this, but saying that this is Elizabeth’s only concern does her a great disservice. I could cite quotes from the novel to disprove his assertation, but I’ll return to the point now.)

His whole point (from the viewpoint of a young man who did not get along with his own family) is that the only family you really need are good friends. Well, I don’t think that is what Jane Austen was saying AT ALL…but maybe I should spare you my rant. He contradicts himself once in a while when he pulls out these different principles. (Elizabeth has a loving and kind heart, but she couldn’t care less about her sisters except as they affect her own life?) The chapter on Sense and Sensibility received a mixed reception from me. Some of what he said I agreed with (love is not just something that happens to you, etc.) but some of it I did not at all agree with. His sympathies being more in tune with Marianne’s than Elinor’s (and mine being the opposite) I felt that he didn’t really understand Elinor. But I must admit, that of all of Austen’s heroines, the one I have the hardest time relating to is Marianne. I thought it quite harsh to say Marianne was “more or less forced” to marry Col. Brandon, and that it took the movies to grant Elinor a “new depth of feeling”. And there were numerous other comments of his I disagreed with throughout the book (as well as a few things he implied as fact that were not).

Also, he tended to offer a little more personal information than I really thought necessary, particularly in regard to his sexual relations. I think we were told about every girlfriend he ever had (or wanted). And there were several times when I wondered if he worried about what his family and friends thought when reading his book. He was very blatant and frank, both in regards to himself and others. He might have made a few enemies in publishing this book.

And one more little pet peeve (then I’m done, I promise!) Deresiewicz is a ‘man of the world’. His tastes and attitudes are very modern, and he sometimes projects these onto Austen and her characters. This is natural; we all do this to the characters we read, and that’s why we can relate to them, but still, sometimes his descriptions of what he thought was going on in Austen’s or a character’s mind or heart has a very 21st century flair and the contrast struck me as quite unbelievable and ridiculous. This also leads Deresiewicz to laud Jane Austen as almost a prophetess sometimes, which, as much as I love and admire her, is going a bit far. Jane Austen was blessed with an unusually sharp eye with which to observe human nature, and she had the talent and courage to expose her observations in her novels. Human nature, being one of the few things that remains constant through time, is so much a part of us, but sometimes so hard to grasp. As illustrated in the quote I started out with, novels (and other books) can give us the opportunity to test choices and attitudes, and thus give us a better understanding of human nature and of ourselves.

Apart from all my criticisms, I really enjoyed reading this book. Deresiewicz made me laugh many times. Looking at something from another person’s viewpoint can be very educational, not only from the standpoint of learning something new, but also from the standpoint of throwing your own feelings and thoughts into sharper relief. And I think his humility in admitting he could have something to learn, even from a commonly styled ’girl’ book, is something we could all use a bit more of. In fact, Deresiewicz reminded me a lot of Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park is charming and spoiled, comes from weird family dynamics in which he was not taught good principles, and has quite a good opinion of himself. There come a few times (upon meeting William Price, and falling in love with Fanny) that he sees some of his own shortcomings. He recognizes the principles involved and has a desire to be a better person, but he has not the courage and persistence to back up his efforts (one of the biggest disappointments in all of Austen). Deresiewicz starts out very similarly. But when he comes upon those moments in his own life when he is confronted with those harsh realities, he steps back to rethink his situation, his attitudes, his feelings, and the principles involved. His journey of growth is well-worth reading.

Oh, and I won’t ruin it for you, but the ending was perfect!