Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.
In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”
When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”
Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.
Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”
A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.
From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“
The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages