A Jane Austen Education
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A Jane Austen Education
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William Deresiewicz begins A Jane Austen Education by confessing an initial condescension toward nineteenth&150;century British literature in general and Jane Austen in particular. He prefers the more difficult modern novelists&151;Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad, Nabokov. Why waste your time, he thinks, on the trifling romantic problems and daily gossip of the British upper&150;crust when you can wrestle with the weighty themes and linguistic acrobatics of world&150;class intellects? Such was the attitude of the arrogant, narcissistic graduate student William Deresiewicz, a young man who, not surprisingly, had trouble sustaining his relationships.
But as he studies Austen, with the help of an engagingly Socratic professor, Deresiewicz begins to see what Austen is really up to beneath the smooth and seemingly uneventful surfaces of her novels. More important, he sees that Austen is in fact shining a very bright light on his very own shortcomings.
A Jane Austen Education explores each of Austen’s six novels, and in each Deresiewicz uncovers a lesson that applies directly, often uncannily so, to his own life. He learns that Austen’s apparently pointless passages of “trivial” dialogue are actually her way of honoring her characters, their lives, their daily concerns. He sees that his own attempts to seem serious and important are in fact pretentious and off&150;putting. He doesn’t listen to his friends, he makes speeches designed to impress them. Austen shows him that the stories we tell about our daily lives&151;and more important, how we listen to the stories of others&151;are where the real action is, not in lofty discourses or complicated language games or melodramatic adventures. He learns from Austen that “every life is eventful, if only you know how to look at it” (p. 27).
How you look at things&151;at your conversations, at your friends, your lovers, your teachers, your students, the novels you’re reading&151;makes all the difference. Again and again, Deresiewicz returns to Austen’s novels to find something significant he missed on first reading. In doing so he discovers that many of his cherished assumptions are wrong.
He finds that Austen, who died nearly two hundred years ago and never married, has much to teach him about his own life&151;about how to grow up, how to be a better teacher and friend, what wealth and comfort can do to people, what true love looks like, and much more.
In a time that has largely abandoned the notion of reading literature for moral guidance, Deresiewicz offers a refreshing reminder that great books really can help us live our lives. His willingness to show readers precisely how Austen helped him become a better person&151;a more empathic, generous, useful person&151;requires him to reveal just how badly mistaken he was about almost everything that matters and just what a insensitive, self&150;important young man he was. Doing so requires a great deal of humility&151;a quality which he learned, of course, from Jane Austen herself.
William Deresiewicz was an associate professor of English at Yale University until 2008 and is a widely published book critic. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, and The American Scholar. He was nominated for the National Magazine Award in 2008, 2009, and 2011 and the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2010 and 2011. He is the author of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets.
Q. How did you hit upon the idea writing a memoir about your relationship to Jane Austen’s novels?
It actually happened by accident. I was having an interview for an academic job, and at the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my résumé&151;there were three projects I had either written or was planning to write, and all of them had the words “Jane Austen” in the title&151;she asked, “So what’s with you and Jane Austen?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, I just blurted out a phrase that had already been rolling around in my head for a long time. “Well,” I said, “sometimes I just feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen.” And she said, “That would make a great book.”
I thought about it for a while and realized she was right. But I also realized that if I was going to write about the lessons I had learned from Jane Austen, I would need to write about the way I had learned them. In other words, I would have to write a memoir, which was going to involve a lot of excruciating honesty.
Q. Were you surprised at just how many uncanny correspondences you found between the challenges in your own life and those faced by Austen’s characters?
Absolutely. I had never had such a personal relationship with an author before, and I certainly never expected a woman novelist, writing about upper&150;class English girls who only wanted to get married, to speak so directly to my own experience&151;someone who wasn’t upper&150;class, or English, or a girl, and who certainly didn’t want to ever get married. Now, of course, I realize that those prejudices were absurd. Austen, like every great writer, wrote about eternal problems. Though I should say that when I taught her books to college students, a lot of them (and not necessarily only the boys) would have the same resistance, even though they were perfectly willing to accept that someone like Homer or Shakespeare could speak to what they were going through.
Q. In reading Austen for the life lessons her novels provide you’re committing a kind of academic apostasy. Why do you think most academics stopped reading literature in this way?
I think that kind of reading got a bad name during the Victorian era, when literature was reduced to nothing but moral instruction, often of the most clichéd and conventional kind. It was not only didactic and sentimental, it also tended to ignore the artistic qualities of a poem or novel or play. Modernism, the kind of literature I loved the most before I encountered Austen, was a reaction to that. Art for art’s sake, as they said: the notion that literature could serve any practical or moral function, could help you live your life, was regarded as vulgar. Since it was that period that gave rise to the academic study of literature as we know it, those attitudes were simply taken up as part of the profession. You were only supposed to study a work’s artistic features (or, more recently, its political implications), so that everything personal was taken out. It’s not just by talking about life lessons that I’m committing apostasy, it’s by talking about myself at all. You’re supposed to be objective, supposed to pretend you’re a kind of scientist. Which to me defeats the purpose of reading literature in the first place. I don’t read that way, and I didn’t teach that way.
Q. What does your graduate adviser, the teacher you write about at length in the chapter on Northanger Abbey, think of A Jane Austen Education?
To my enormous sorrow, he didn’t live to see the book completed. One of my deepest hopes was that he would get to read it before it was too late&151;in some sense the whole thing was an homage to him&151;but I actually ended up learning of his death the day I started writing that chapter. It was quite devastating. My only consolation has been that I’ve been able to share the book with his family and my fellow students&151;and also, of course, that I’ve been able to preserve his memory in print.
[Note: That is why the book is co&150;dedicated to “the memory of Karl Kroeber.”]
Q. What was the most surprising lesson you learned from reading Austen?
I think the most surprising, and in some ways the most profound, was that my feelings could be wrong. Like everybody else these days, I had absorbed the belief that our feelings have a kind of absolute validity: that we have a “right” to them, whatever that means, that they are “true,” that no one can question them. But Austen believed that reason was more important than feeling, that feelings need to be examined. Put it this way: feelings are always based on perceptions&151;what you think someone said or did or whatever. What if those perceptions are wrong&151;aren’t the feelings also wrong? That’s exactly what Elizabeth Bennet learns in her big confrontation with Mr. Darcy, and that’s what I learned by reading about it. And though this lesson has often been humbling, it’s also liberating. I can let go of my feelings when I realize they’re mistaken. I don’t have to insist on having them “validated.”
Q. Austen clearly helped prepare you for marriage. Has she continued to provide guidance for the challenges of married life?
Very much so. The whole way I’ve learned to deal with conflict comes from her. Partly it’s a matter of what I was just talking about. Partly it’s the understanding that if I can manage to bring myself to admit that I’m wrong, as painful and humiliating as it might be, there could be a reward in the end: I could learn something, I could grow, I could become a better person not just for my wife but for myself. Austen also taught me that being a good friend means being honest, as uncomfortable as that often is for both people involved.
And of course, my wife is a huge Jane Austen fan, so that’s something that we love to share.
Q. Was it difficult to present yourself as a self&150;important, narcissistic young man in the book?
Yes! It was excruciating. I’m actually a very private person, believe it or not. Some of the scenes I write about were hard enough simply to revisit on my own, let alone think about sharing with thousands of strangers. Really, I think on a certain level I’m just in denial about it.
Q. Are there any other writers who’ve been similarly instructive for you? What writers are most important to you right now?
Well, no one has come close to Jane Austen, and I don’t think anyone ever can, if only because I read her during a time in my life, the transition to adulthood, that can only happen once. But yes, other writers have been important to me. After finishing my dissertation chapter on Pride and Prejudice, I wrote the next one on Middlemarch, which gave me a whole new perspective on some of the same issues&151;especially when it means to grow up. Austen it is about becoming an adult; George Eliot is about being one, with all the disappointment and compromise that inevitably involves.
Right now I’m immersed in a very different group of writers, the New York intellectuals and other Jewish writers from the middle of the last century: Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Bernard Malamud, Leslie Fiedler, Herbert Gold. Now that I’m a full&150;time writer, I look to them as my role models and intellectual forebears. Obviously, a very different group of people from Jane Austen and George Eliot&151;for one thing, they’re all men&151;but one of the first lessons Austen taught me was not to worry about those sorts of labels.
Q. What are you working on now?
A very different project, though one that ultimately connects to the story I tell in A Jane Austen Education. It’s an expansion of an essay I wrote a few years ago called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” based on my experiences as a professor at Yale as well as my own time as a student at Columbia, about how the whole game of elite college admissions and everything that leads up to it in high school (and follows from it in college) gives kids the wrong idea about what education is for and indeed what life is for. So it’s another book about values and also about education, and like the Jane Austen book, it originated from my own reeducation, from becoming aware of the ways I had been educated wrongly and what I needed to do to live a more fulfilled life.
- How does Deresiewicz overcome his initial disdain for Austen? In what other instances does he have to take a second look at what Austen is saying in order to truly understand her?
- Deresiewicz writes that Austen “knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else’s stories&151;entering into their feelings, validating their experiences&151;is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness” (p. 161). Why do stories&151;both when we tell them and when we listen to them&151;have this power to reveal and acknowledge our humanity?
- Deresiewicz writes that, for Austen, “love is not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something you have to prepare yourself for” (p. 220). What other myths about romantic love do Austen’s novels puncture? How does Austen help Deresiewicz prepare for the woman he will marry?
- In Austen’s view, what is the most important quality one should look for in a mate?
- How is Austen able to offer such wise guidance about love and marriage despite having been unmarried herself? Why did she choose not to marry?
- Is Deresiewicz right when he argues that, in the modern world, community can’t be found in a structure, like a kibbutz or commune, or in the kind of youth movement he experienced as a teenager, but only in “a circle of friends”? (p. 181). What is it about modern life that makes traditional forms of community unworkable? In what ways does Austen anticipate this development in Persuasion?
- In the chapter on Northanger Abbey, what does Deresiewicz learn, both from Jane Austen and from his professor, about being a teacher? How does his approach to teaching change?
- Deresiewicz finds a subtle critique of the aristocracy in Austen’s novels. How do aristocrats typically come off in her books? In what ways are they stunted by wealth and comfort? How does Mansfield Park change his perception of his own circle of wealthy, elegant friends in New York City?
- What are the major aesthetic differences, in Deresiewicz’s view, between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë? Why does Deresiewicz prefer Austen? Why would he appropriate Brontë’s famous declaration in Jane Eyre&151;“Reader, I married him”&151;to end his own book?
- How has reading A Jane Austen Education changed your understanding or deepened your appreciation of Jane Austen?