A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
I knew I was going to like this book when it began with chapter 1 on page 1. No introduction, preface, foreword, not even acknowledgements (they are at the end). William Deresiewicz just gets right down to business, which I very much appreciate. His business, in this case, is to tell the story of how he came to appreciate Jane Austen’s novels while working on his doctoral dissertation. He admits to being prejudiced against her, having been educated to believe modernist literature was the only literature that mattered. However, after reading Austen’s novels carefully and reflecting on his own life, he began to realize that her vision of human social life was not only relevant but sorely needed, as much today as in her time.
The cover art for this book is brilliant because he describes how, by reading Austen’s novels, he learned to put on the behaviour of mature, well-mannered, and socially functional man. Each novel had particular lessons for him, and the parallels with his personal life are quite striking. Perhaps some artistic license has been applied, but the point is that the challenges of modern life bear a striking resemblance to the dramas of Meryton, Hartfield, Bath, and Austen’s other locales.
From Emma he learned that it’s the small details of daily like that hold people and communities together (I posted a related quote here). With some chagrin he recognized himself in Emma, who felt herself to be above the humble concerns of the likes of Miss Bates.
Emma, who had it all, was forever discontented with the world around her—just like me, in my perpetual fog of resentful gloom. Instead it was Miss Bates—scraping by, facing a lonely old age, dependent on everybody else’s good will—who was the happy one. If her speech bubbled and flowed in an endless stream of little matters, that was only because, like Austen herself, she found everything around her so very interesting.
Things went no better for him with Pride and Prejudice. I have never been able to understand why so many readers admire (to put it mildly) Eliza Bennet. It never seemed quite right to me, though I could not say why. Deresiewicz puts words to what I only felt instinctively: Elizabeth Bennet is wrong for almost the entire book, and it nearly results in disaster for herself and her entire family. It is only through total humiliation that she learns to question herself, which to Deresiewicz amounts to growing up. For him, the lesson of Pride and Prejudice is that growing up requires humiliation, for that is the only way we can learn to temper our feelings and opinions with reason.
Northanger Abbey is not the most entertaining of Austen’s works, for me, but for Deresiewicz it came as a profound revelation. At the time he was struggling with his new role as teacher. The more he tried to cram his brilliant insights into his students, the more they slouched and sighed and stayed silent in class. He then began to look at Northanger Abbey as a story about different kinds of teaching and the effects they have. Catherine Morland was taught by lurid novels and fashionable friends to view the world in a certain way, and she willingly complied. Then Henry Tilney comes along and tries to lead her to think about things for herself.
…students don’t come to school with open minds, they come with all the concepts they’ve already acquired … and they can’t wait to project them on to everything they read. If you’re in college you go hunting for “symbolism” or “foreshadowing” or “Christ figures.” If you’re in graduate school it’s “constructions of otherness” or “discourses of sexuality” or “the circulation of power.” Either way you end up like Catherine, with a very elaborate theory that bears no relationship to what’s actually going on in front of you. Henry challenged Catherine; my professor challenged his students; Austen challenged all of us. The job of a teacher, I now understood, is neither to affirm your students’ notions or fill them with your own. They job is to free them from both.
Sometimes I regret that I have no formal education in English literature, but a passage like this makes me think that it might actually be an advantage!
Now, about Mansfield Park… I can sense the eyes rolling already, but hold on. Fanny Price has to be Austen’s most disdained heroine, even though she is one of the few who is not in fact a disaster. Everyone around her, except for her cousin Edmund and brother William, are most certainly disasters. Both wealth and poverty have corrupted the people in her life, turning them into selfish beings who see others more as objects than as people. We see this especially at Mansfield Park itself, but it is no less true in Fanny’s own family, where only one brother and sister among many have developed a real sense of affection for her. Her own parents are barely aware of her existence. The Crawfords are even worse, swooping in from the big city and charming everyone with their witty banter, while they desperately try to fill their inner emptiness with intrigue and constant amusement, usually at someone else’s expense.
Deresiewicz saw the same dynamic exactly in the upper class New York clique he had been mysteriously admitted to. He soon learned that he was mainly there as a play thing and if he wanted to stay he had to provide a constant stream of funny stories about his disastrous love life. He was not human to them, no one was; they weren’t even human to themselves. One of them quipped that they are doing well if they haven’t committed suicide by 30, which gives a sense of the inner terrors of these purposeless heirs and heiresses. The author admits being bewitched by the glamour of the high fashion lifestyle, but Austen helped him see it for what it was so he could free himself from it. It also showed him that Fanny, far from being a bland doormat, was in fact the most richly human of them all. She had strong feelings, but had the self-control and dignity not to impose them on others. She could entertain herself, with books and her imagination, while the only entertainment the other young people could come up with was to stage a scandalous play as an excuse to flirt with people they shouldn’t be flirting with. Most importantly, she had a sense of her social duty to others, and made herself useful to everyone around her. This is the antithesis of the likes of the Crawfords, who assumed that everyone else was placed on earth to be of use to them. Though Fanny suffered much abuse and lack of appreciation, she still had infinitely more peace of mind than someone like Tom Bertram, who had all the money and freedom in the world and destroyed himself with it. Austen’s message is simple and timeless: the way of self-will and self-indulgence leads to despair and destruction. Only selflessness and attending to others can bring happiness and the affection of other good people.
Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is another Plain Jane character, taken for granted by everyone, but still making herself useful and helping where she can. For Deresiewicz, Persuasion is as much about finding friends as about finding love. Anne’s family haven’t the slightest interest in her, as she won’t join their game of social climbing, and so she has to look in unconventional places for friendship, namely the navy and her old school friend, the now destitute and disabled Mrs. Smith. People that her father sneers at turn out to be full of warmth and welcome and appreciation for herself rather than for her status. Deresiewicz also points out that Anne makes friends with men, showing that where there is a true meeting of the minds, neither class nor sex is relevant. Mrs. Smith is perhaps the most selfless model of friendship. Had she kept her mouth shut and allowed Anne to marry the rascal Mr. Elliot, she could have benefited greatly from Anne’s generosity. But as a friend she had to tell her the truth about Mr. Elliot. This relates to one of the key lessons that Deresiewicz takes away from Persuasion: being a true friend sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations and even challenging your friends when you think they are on the wrong track. Deresiewicz began to put this into practice by confronting a friend with a drinking problem. Not surprisingly his friend stopped talking to him, but eventually his friend saw the truth of the matter and thanked him for having spoken up. Sometimes being a good friend means disagreeing with your friend, no matter what it costs you.
Austen is often seen as a romantic writer, since her novels tend to end with weddings, but it’s really only Sense and Sensibility that Deresiewicz sees as being principally about love. It contrasts two approaches to love, personified by hyper-romantic Marianne and sensible Elinor. In Austen’s time, as in our own, there was a general belief in the romantic ideal—love at first sight, soul mates, violins and fireworks. However, the folly of this approach is brought home to Marianne in the most humiliating way. She did not take the time to ascertain who this young man really was, and so she was easily deceived. Elinor, on the other hand, when she met Edward Ferrars, proceeded slowly, carefully, and got to know his ideas on all subjects and became acquainted with his true character. To Marianne this seems cold and lifeless, but as Deresiewicz points out, “Elinor’s way … is every bit as intuitive as Marianne’s, and, if anything, takes place at a deeper level.” Elinor does not “fall” in love suddenly (and literally!) as Marianne does, her love grows organically as she learns more about Edward’s fine character. Deresiewicz again: “Austen believed that if a person’s character is good, love increases with simple familiarity.” So Austen is not against love, she is against the false fantasy of romance that is so often mistaken for love.
…making a mature decision, patiently feeling and thinking your way toward mutual respect and regard and esteem, accepting the responsibility of challenging and being challenged, refusing both the comforts of fantasy and the cynicism of calculation—that is the really radical, the really original, the really heroic move. That is the true freedom; that is the way you lift yourself above the bondage of impulse and cliché.
If you are wondering what effect this had on Deresiewicz, it did no less than convert him from confirmed bachelor to the marrying kind. He ends the book with an allusion to another literary Jane by writing, “Reader, I married her.” The irony is that Austen herself never chose marriage, despite having had plenty of admirers and at least one offer. She knew that marriage entailed many duties and many pregnancies, any one of which could kill her. It is a chilling fact that all of her brothers’ wives died in childbirth. She chose to remain single and revelled in her freedom to live and to write. Unfortunately for her and for us, that freedom did not last long and she died of a mysterious disease at only 41 years of age.
Despite the slightly corny ending I greatly enjoyed A Jane Austen Education. It made me see new aspects of all of Austen’s books, which I will dutifully try to unsee the next time I read them. I wouldn’t want to be like Catherine Morland! I will instead try to pay attention to the small details, keep my opinions in check, avoid being charmed by vivacity, look for connections in unexpected places, and, little by little, gradually deepen my knowledge and love for these wonderful books.