From the Archives: Everything United In Her
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
By William Deresiewicz
Penguin Press, 2011
Becoming Jane Austen. Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. My Jane Austen Summer. Tea with Jane Austen. The Jane Austen Book Club. The Jane Austen Handbook. The Jane Austen Cookbook. What Would Jane Austen Do?
Clearly, we do not lack for books about Jane Austen. Books about Jane Austen, in fact, make up only part of a veritable Austen-industry—encompassing movies and music, sequels and prequels, spin-offs and spoofs. By now I expect there are more adaptations of Pride and Prejudice than there are copies of the original in circulation. And it’s just a matter of time before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters makes it to the big screen. Never mind what Jane Austen would do—just imagine what she is doing: rolling over in her grave.
William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is one of several additions to the Austen conglomerate in 2011, though written by one of America’s foremost literary critics. Deresiewicz’s ambidextrous essays (they dole out with the forgiving and the damning hand in equal measure) appear with loud frequency in The Nation, the American Scholar and the New Republic, and his Austen knowabout has previously been on ample display in a highly regarded scholarly volume titled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets—serious credentials that lurk calmly beneath the unruffled surface of A Jane Austen Education. Whatever else one might say of the book, it does a fine job of delineating the novels with scholarly care but in accessible, reader-fondling prose.
As for the rest of the book…well, what exactly is it up to, really? It is a genre-teaser, equal parts memoir and monograph, literary crash-course and a portrait of the critic as a young man. Even so, it seems undecided about which direction it wants to take. Just as you start to get interested in Jane Austen, here comes William from afar with all his predictable problems: daddy issues, post-grad jitters, romantic disillusionment. And just as you start to wonder what is up with this guy William, back we go to linger among the landed gentry.
And gradually, of course, one begins to discern the familiar sweep of a Jane Austen novel: naïve young person must overcome stubbornness/immaturity/ignorance and take responsibility for him or herself while attempting to grow as an individual. As the book opens, for instance, William Deresiewicz himself recalls struggling to see the value in Austen’s writing. “The one area of English literature that held no interest for me,” he writes of his 26-year old Ph.D-pursuing self, “was nineteenth-century British fiction. What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?”
At the time he fancied himself a rebel, and he recalls passing his days “in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches” while walking down Broadway “in my John Lennon coat,” railing angrily against everything “conventional, respectable, and pious.” He valued Joyce and Conrad above Jane Austen and George Eliot. He smoked pot and listened to the Clash. He read Kerouac and Heller. He scoffed at sellouts. He was, he writes, “Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine.”
Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage come to mind, as well they should. Dyer set the gold standard of the imaginative-critical genre, contrasting the often hilarious postponement and procrastination of his restless writing life with that of D.H. Lawrence. The result was dizzying in its brilliance, not to mention lucid and illuminating in its portrayal of Lawrence and his writing.
Not so with Deresiewicz. The self-parody of these early pages doesn’t last. As we get into the novels proper, it is silently effaced by the strict rigor of Deresiewicz’s pursuit of ethical guidelines in Austen’s novels—lessons on how to live. The book’s six chapters each correspond to a formative period in the author’s life and to the specific Jane Austen novel he was reading at the time. (Conveniently, whichever novel he was reading at the time also happened to be ideally suited to teach him something about that time.) And so you have six trite, facile chapter headings like this: “Emma: Everyday matters”; “Mansfield Park: Being good”; “Sense and Sensibility: Falling in love.” And each chapter, as their headings suggest, offers straightforward, if hard-earned, lessons on each subject. Emma: “Life is lived at the level of the little…Emma’s life finally became real to her, and in reading about her life I felt mine becoming real to me”; Pride and Prejudice: “the novel was really showing me how to grow up”; Northanger Abbey: “the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise”; Mansfield Park: “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without”; Persuasion: “Friends, Austen taught me, are the family you chose”; Sense and Sensibility: “the essential requirement for love…is simply to possess a loving heart.”
You hardly need to read Jane Austen, let alone six of her novels, to come up with such brain-nuking platitudes. If anything, you would expect the Austen-savvy to do us the long overdue favor of undermining these crass simplifications. But Deresiewicz, for all his credentials and scholarly dues, proves almost ludicrously reductive in his approach to the subject and, as a result, preposterously self-serving: the pursuit for the teachings of Jane Austen come at too high a price to Jane Austen; the equilibrium that ought to exist when an author has the nerve to explicate his own life parallel to some of the most beloved literary lives in the world is terminally overturned.
I should point out that Deresiewicz does an admirable job of summarizing the many qualities of the individual novels themselves. His realization in the chapter on Emma, for instance, that Austen anticipated her reader’s sluggish, bored reactions, is lucid and intelligent:
The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.
This is Deresiewicz at his best, carefully attuned to the moral complexities of an exhaustively popular writer, yet even here he winds up participating in the very simplification he sets out to contradict. Amis once wrote that “Jane Austen makes Mrs. Bennets of us all” (i.e. prattling, coarse, stupid nightmares), and Deresiewicz, who wants so badly to make Lizzie Bennets of us all, is no different. The very complexities of Austen’s novels are cut and trimmed in order to carve out set of readily available moral codes. At its worst, A Jane Austen Education further undermines these moral codes to the point where the reader is left with the grotesque impression that he or she is witnessing the formulation of a Jane Austen self-help book. Take the chapter on Persuasion: “True Friends.” Explaining how Anne Elliott finds with Wentworth and Harville in Lyme Regis a sense of community and belonging away from her manipulating family, Deresiewicz recounts the escalating alcoholism of a close friend. Persuasion, meanwhile, has taught him that true friendship means “putting your friend’s welfare before your own. That means admitting when you’re wrong, but even more importantly, it means being willing to tell your friend when they are.”
His friend comes to town, and Deresiewicz, aware of the drinking problem, nevertheless takes him out and watches him get tanked. The following day he is angry: angry at himself and angry at his friend. A month goes by before he has the courage to write him a letter, a letter in which he tells him frankly that he feels they have drifted apart; that, in effect, alcoholism had sunk any semblance of a friendship. Months later he receives word from his friend that he has sobered up and joined AA, and that Deresiewicz’s letter had been instrumental in bringing about this change. “Few things had ever felt better or made me prouder,” the author writes. “But as I knew perfectly well that letter had a coauthor, and it was Austen.”
And so one visualizes the numerous Jane Austen self-help books amassing on the horizon: Six Books to Sobriety: The Jane Austen Cure. The Reading Habits of Highly Effective People: Austen, Austen, Austen. Everyday Matters, and Other Truths Universally Acknowledged. The leap is not so farfetched. By reducing the complexities of Austen (paradoxically, so skillfully identified) to a set of self-serving how to lessons, Deresiewicz cheats himself out of a great book in the manner of Dyer and Batuman—a book as illuminating about Jane Austen as it would be of the author himself, and the difficulties and contradictions inherent to taking life lessons from an early nineteenth century English novelist. What Jane Austen, in the guise of William Deresiewicz, taught me in this book I could just as easily have picked up from watching Kiera Knightley’s protruding, quivering jaw in Joe Wright’s sappy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: love is all you need.
As it stands, however, A Jane Austen Education approaches the Janeite altar with the usual abandonment of real, literary insight. Never mind what you need; platitudes are all you get.
Morten Høi Jensen is a Danish writer. He has written for Bookforum, The Quarterly Conversation and Words Without Borders Magazine. He is a co-founder of Ugarte Magazine and writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.