Sunday, January 25, 2015

"A Jane Austen Education" by William Deresiewicz

I.  Loved.  This.  Book.

Seriously, friends.  This is the most readable, most thought-provoking exploration of Austen's books I have read.  It's part literary analysis and part memoir, with the two intertwined so closely they form a cohesive whole.  The author shows how his reading of Austen's books influenced how he interacted with people and lived his life, and how what happened in his life influenced how he read and understood Austen's books.

While reading about his life was interesting to me, simply because I like learning about people and their lives, what I really loved were his observations about Austen's books and how they apply to life today.  And by "loved" I mean, "underlined more than 40 passages in a 250-page book."  I'll be sharing a LOT of them at the end of this post :-)  But not all, I promise.

Deresiewicz appreciates many of the same things about Austen's books as I do, and views them very like I do, so it's not surprising I liked what he had to say.  He likes her wit, her sharp observations of human nature, and her skillful characterizations.  And, like me, he doesn't view her books as "romantic."  In fact, he had a lot to say about Austen's views on love and romance, and how unconventional they really are, both in her time and ours.  He takes each novel in turn and discusses it, both analyzing it and showing how lessons he learned from it changed his own life.  He began reading Austen's novels while in graduate school, working on his doctorate.  He went from thinking they would be ridiculous, fluffy romances to writing part of his doctoral dissertation about them.  And he went from being a shallow and self-absorbed hipster to a person who was not only capable of loving another person, but knew how to be a good friend too.

The only thing I disliked about this book was that Deresiewicz does talk about his love life more than I'd prefer, and he does discuss sexuality in the Austen books, so I can't recommend this wholeheartedly to everyone in the universe.  However, he doesn't go into juicy details or get all salaciously descriptive, so I myself wasn't uncomfortable with the book.  Not appropriate for younger readers, though.

Particularly Good Bits:

Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn't think of anything else to talk about.  She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are (p. 12).

She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels (p. 27).

For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct (p. 51).

I could grow up and find happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important.  Not my feelings, but my belief in my feelings, my conviction that they were always right (p. 65).

Needless to say, not everybody wants to hear that their feelings aren't necessarily valid.  In fact, a lot of people hate Jane Austen for just that reason.  They see her as cold and prudish, a schoolmarm and killjoy (p. 70).

Playful, impish, provoking:  this was Austen exactly, and never more so than in Northanger Abbey.  Austen used the novel to make us her students.  Henry was her surrogate, and Catherine was ours, and she went about teaching just the way that he did.  In fact, she taught, in part, through him (p. 92).

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 our ethical judgments and choices (p. 99).

Learning to read... means learning to live.  Keeping your eyes open when you're looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time (p. 103).

Austen was not a novelist for nothing:  she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories -- entering into their feelings, validating their experiences -- is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness (p. 161).

Lady Russell, whether she recognized it or not, was trying to protect her own dignity, not her friend's  She was the person she was trying to save from being connected with someone as lowly as a naval officer (p. 190).

For [Austen], being happy means becoming a better person, and becoming a better person means having your mistakes pointed out to you in a way that you can't ignore.  Yes, the true friend wants you to be happy, but being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same things (p. 194).

For [Austen], I saw, love is not something that happens to you, suddenly or otherwise; it's something you have to prepare yourself for (p. 220).

Austen was not against romance, she was against romantic mythology (p. 227).

Her heroines weren't passive, weren't piteous, weren't victims, weren't playthings.  They controlled their destinies; they stood as equals (p. 232).

For her heroes and heroines, sexual attraction was always the last thing, never the first.  It didn't create affection, it flowed from it (p. 233).

Austen's lovers challenged each other:  to be less selfish, more aware, kinder, more considerate -- not only toward each other but to everyone around them (p. 235).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for reference to sexual activity.


  1. This definitely sounds like something I would enjoy--thanks for the recommendation!

  2. This looks really good, and I really want to read it, but you mentioned though how he mentioned his love life a lot. Would you let a 15 year old read this book?

    1. Depends on the 15-year-old. I would say there's nothing dirty in it. He mentions things like losing his virginity, having relationships that were only about sex, and so on, but nothing more detailed than that. The only thing I found distasteful was his interpretation of the line in Mansfield Park about "rears and vices," which was a bit bolder than my own.

      I guess, if you're in doubt, ask a parent or other trusted adult to flip through it first and see if they think it would be appropriate?

    2. You're welcome! Hope that helped :-)

  3. Ooo! I saw this somewhere recently and was intrigued, but now you've convinced me. I have got to find me a copy soon! :)

    1. I hope you can find it! I was thrilled with it, as you can tell :-)

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, it's good to see the positives and negatives of the book too. The quotes you picked out have encouraged me to reserve it at my library so hopefully I will enjoy it :-) Thanks again!

    1. I hope you do enjoy it, Walker Louise! It's very meaty and thought-provoking. I'm glad your library has it :-)

  5. This looks so interesting! I'm going to have to add it to my list. :)

    1. Yay! I love spreading the word about awesome books!


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