Saturday, June 25, 2011
In Which Trai Reviews 'A Jane Austen Education'
The Book: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
The Author: William Deresiewicz
How I Found It: As ever, the book received several glowing reviews from Janeite bloggers whose opinions I trust.
The Review: Oftentimes, men aren't Austen fans. It's just hard for them to see what's so great about stories primarily about young girls finding their way in the world. Oh, there are exceptions. There are men like the ones that frequent the same Austen sites I do, and there are men like my stepdad, willing to sit patiently through every Austen adaptation I could find a few years back. But there are also men like my prom date, who forged valiantly through half of Pride and Prejudice on my recommendation before he confessed to me that it just wasn't for him.
William Deresiewicz was one of those men. He was twenty-six and being forced to read Emma for one of his graduate school classes, determined not to like it. He was sarcastic and sullen, a rebel who often spoke or acted without regarding the feelings of his friends. He was the youngest of three kids and infantilized by both parents, to the point that he knew almost nothing about living on his own. After Emma brought him to a painful revelation about how he treated others and how he should view the world, Jane Austen was the one who showed him the light and helped him grow up.
Emma - Everyday Matters: Deresiewicz starts his book with an examination of the book that made him love Austen. I'll admit that Emma is my least favorite of the six novels, mostly because I find Emma to be an insufferable snob, but it was enlightening to read about how Emma's snobbishness is exactly what made Deresiewicz realize how he was treating others. "Emma's life finally became real to her, and in reading about her life I felt mine finally becoming real to me. ... Reading Emma, being asked to take the lives of characters like Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax as seriously as they did themselves... made me finally begin to take my own life seriously." (33) It was sad but somehow uplifting to read about Deresiewicz coming to the painful revelation that he wasn't connecting with others the way he'd thought. The good thing is, he realized he had to change and actually took the initiative to do so.
Pride and Prejudice - Growing Up: It's really an eye-opening experience to see Jane Austen through the eyes of a man. Now that I think about it, I read a book two summers ago (Two Guys Read Jane Austen) that tried to give a man's point of view on the subject, but it was written by two older men reading Jane, men who'd already done their growing up and figuring out who they wanted to be. Deresiewicz might be writing as an older man, but he's sharing the experience of his younger self, and it's truly fantastic to read about.
I had to laugh when he talks about being in love with Elizabeth Bennet, about wanting to wring Darcy's neck for hurting her and Jane. Men are just as susceptible to crushing on Austen's characters! That was nice to know. I could really relate to Deresiewicz's depiction of university life (reading while brushing your teeth, eating ramen, walking down the street--all of which I've done), and his examination of what Austen had to say about growing up really hit home with me. “… my father was wrong: you can’t learn from other people’s mistakes; you can only learn from your own. Austen was making her beloved Elizabeth miserable because she knew that that’s what growing up requires. For it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it.” (60) I cheered for him as he made the decision to move to Brooklyn, away from his father's attempts to do everything for him.
Northanger Abbey - Learning to Learn: Here, Deresiewicz examines Austen as a teacher, helping readers to form their own opinions by expanding their horizons, not telling them what to think. His emphasis is on Mr. Tilney and his relationship with Catherine, and can I just say that I now have a newfound appreciation for Mr. Tilney? Northanger Abbey is so slight and sometimes silly that often it's just the one I think of when I think of being amused, but now I realize how profound it really is at times, and how Mr. Tilney is just awesome. (My friends at Austenblog realized that some time before I did, however.) "Now he was inciting her to speak, then pretending to misunderstand her, even at the risk of looking like a dunce, in order to force her to fight her way back to what she really meant--and thus, to figure out what she really thought in the first place." (90) Deresiewicz compares Tilney to his most-loved professor, imparting a sense of how effective teaching can be if a professor is doing more than just imposing their own ideas onto a student.
As a college student, wow, could I see what he was talking about. (And he is spot on; I had a good laugh at his bit about college students hunting for symbolism and foreshadowing and Christ figures, as that was exactly what I was taught in high school by How to Read Literature Like a Professor.) He also examines Austen as an aunt and mentor to her young nieces and nephews, and it was touching to see how active a role she took in helping them make decisions and become better writers. Again, I'm impressed at Deresiewicz's willingness to recognize his own flaws and make the effort to change. This was certainly a useful insight into the world of being a professor, and it makes me appreciate the efforts of all the wonderful professors I've had thus far.
Mansfield Park - Being Good: It's no secret that I am an unashamed fan of Mansfield Park. I love Fanny, I love Edmund, I love the whole entire story. I champion this book like nobody else. So it was nice to see Deresiewicz gradually coming to appreciate it and recognize the very things I find wrong with most pro-Crawford arguments I see: that the Crawfords are master manipulators, with very few genuine feelings about Fanny and Edmund. Indeed, it was the Crawfords who made Deresiewicz realize that people in his social circle were not people he should have wanted to spend time with.
Deresiewicz compares Fanny's life at Mansfield Park to his own experiences as the less-privileged friend among the rich Manhattan socialites he met during graduate school. He was the friend that was looked to for funny stories, to be a constant source of entertainment for people like the Crawfords, people with no inner lives, no ability to be entertained by intellectual pursuits, and above all, little ability to understand those without their privileges. "Mary was not just advertising her wealth, she was displaying an ostentatiously metropolitan insouciance in the way she handled it. People in London, she was saying, don't dirty their hands with the details. They snap their fingers, and the world jumps." (134)
With experience, Deresiewicz came to recognize how flawed the Crawfords truly were and how really listening to others, just as Edmund listened to young Fanny, is key. I didn't quite agree with all of his sentiments at the end of the segment (I don't think Austen meant us to dislike Fanny as he asserts, and can't quite see why he'd say that given the pains he takes to point out that Austen has much in common with Fanny), but I really appreciated his take on the novel and how it helped him recognize he was being used.
Persuasion - True Friends: This chapter and the next were more about Austen's side of things than Deresiewicz's, but the book was still worth reading for the insight in his statements and his perspective on the novels. I especially enjoyed this chapter because it gave me an opportunity to revisit Persuasion--the second of Austen's novels I read, and one whose adaptations I've only seen once or twice apiece, so one that's definitely fuzzy in my memory. Deresiewicz discusses the revelation that true friends are ones who are honest, ones who point out your mistakes even if that might hurt your feelings. He examines the relationships between Anne and Lady Russell, Anne and Mrs. Smith, and Anne and the naval officers, in particular.
I hadn't really considered, when I first read it, that by having Anne seek the company of the naval officers instead of her own family, Austen was putting forth the idea of a family of one's own choosing. It was certainly an idea that's come up in my college literature courses, but mainly in discussions of newer novels, so it was surprising to look at Persuasion from this angle. Then there is Deresiewicz's examination of Austen's idea of true friendship--that the best friends are the ones who are honest. "True friends do not shield you from your mistakes, they tell you about them: even at the risk of losing your friendship--which means, even at the risk of being unhappy themselves." (194) It's definitely a lesson worth keeping in mind, given how many of us undoubtedly hesitate to tell our friends the truth for fear of hurting their feelings. Perhaps, Deresiewicz is telling us, we should consider how much more those feelings would be hurt if we were to witness them making mistakes without saying anything.
Sense and Sensibility - Falling In Love: Lastly, Deresiewicz discusses his experiences with dating in his late twenties to early thirties, and how he learned what a relationship really consists of: not perfect harmony, but occasional disagreements; not a perfect match of interests, but enough differences to be able to teach each other something. It's entertaining for me to read this now, when a few months ago, I watched the 2008 Sense and Sensibility with a friend and ended up giving a discourse on just why I felt Marianne and Willoughby wouldn't have lasted if they had gotten married: they were too similar, with little else in common besides loving fun and poetry, whereas Brandon could better understand Marianne's depth of feeling, and had experience and culture that Marianne could learn from. My friend looked at me a little while later and said, "You know, I'd never thought of it that way before."
"True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives. If your lover's already just like you, then neither of you has anywhere to go." (237) It was really nice to see Deresiewicz coming to recognize that conflict was necessary in a relationship, that a whirlwind romance wasn't the ideal match he thought it was, that the supposedly unromantic Sense and Sensibility actually had some reasonable points to make about love. I was a bit disappointed he didn't dwell more on Marianne's relationship with Brandon (it gets barely a few mentions), but given that this was the final chapter, it was basically a culmination of all of Austen's lessons, not just the ones to be gleaned from Sense and Sensibility.
This review is already far too long, so I will close it by saying that this book is just perfect for seasoned Janeites and newcomers to Jane alike. It was everything I hoped it would be, and I came out of it really charmed by Deresiewicz's perspective on Austen and how he had taken her lessons to heart. I got this from the library, but as soon as it comes out in paperback, I'll surely be getting a copy of my own to read again. It's a fast read and one I will definitely be recommending to my Jane-loving friends!