03 May 2011

A Jane Austen Education

I never had to read a Jane Austen for school.  At least, not on the first read.  My grandmother gave me an Illustrated Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice when I was eight or nine.  Yes, I read it.  I didn't quite "get it" but I liked the story.  I read an unabridged edition in junior high and fell in love with Jane Austen.  I read Persuasion and fell head-over-heels for Captain Weentworth (that letter can still make me feel like melting through the floorboards).  I read Emma and, yes, I agreed with the Mighty Austen that Emma was a character that really only she would love (I just wanted to slap Miss Woodhouse for being such a snot).  Marianne is bonkers (dudes, if the guy is too good to be true he probably is) but Elinor needs to lighten up.  Fanny is sweet; a door-mat to her evil Aunt Norris but sweet.  Catherine is a loveable book-geek and who hasn't let her imagination run away with her?

William Deresiewicz didn't read an Austen novel until he was in his second year of grad school at the age of twenty-six.  He was a modernist, a reader of Faulkner, Nabokov, Mailer, Kerouac (also, he admits he was a tool, an inconsiderate immature one at that).  Long, preachy nineteenth-century British novels were not high on his reading list.  Boooring.  But then, he had to read Emma in a course on the novel.  At first he didn't like it - boring, nothing happens, Emma's neighbors are all nitwits, her father, too - although he did like Emma herself because she was a big fish in the little pond of Highbury, looking down on her inferiors.  But then...he started to notice that the focus of the novel was on the "minute particulars" of everyday life, that to avoid looking at the little things was to let your life pass you by and that looking at those little things meant your life had weight, that your acquainances meant something to you. 

Deresiewicz started applying Austen's observations to his life: Emma is about appreciating the little things, Pride and Prejudice about learning to be an adult (he provides the best short-hand description of Darcy ever: "haughty as a Siamese cat, practically licking himself clean whenever someone touched him the wrong way"), Northanger Abbey the habit of learning, Mansfield Park learning to be useful to others (the chapter subtitle "being good" is a bit of a misnomer), Persuasion how to be a good friend (he doesn't even touch on the Anne-Frederick romance...not even the letter), and Sense and Sensibility how to love.  Along the way, Deresiewicz brings in letters from Austen and her family to illuminate some of her lessons.  It's a little bit of literary criticism and a little bit of memoir and a lot of JA love all rolled into one.

Deresciewicz and I come at the novels from two different places but we both learned the same things (well, OK, I'm still learning).  We both learned to appreciate people, to avoid emotional drains, to avoid jumping to conclusions, to shut up and listen, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to trust (I have trouble with the trust thing).  It's the benefit of A Jane Austen Education.

1 comment:

  1. I love the concept of this book. I'm glad it worked for you. Neat idea!

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