You guys, I just finished the best book. It was A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz who may be my new secret boyfriend. Mainly because the person who wrote this book sounds like an awesome boyfriend.
Now, I love Jane Austen. A lot. Pride and Prejudice remains my favorite novel of ever (and if any of my readers are wondering what present they should buy me, the book I just linked would be an awesome choice). I can never decide whether Emma or Persuasion is my second favorite, but, you know, either of those would make excellent presents as well. And of course I’ve watched all the movies, some of them dozens of times (and in the case of Clueless, the cleverest adaptation of them all, well more than that). My husband actually ripped the audio files of the BBC Pride and Prejudice movie and burned them onto CDs (oh my God I’m so f-ing old) so I could listen to them in the car on the way from Boston to Chicago. So would a person who does not like Jane Austen like this book? I really don’t know.
On the one hand, William Deresiewicz started out as one of those people. That’s what his first chapter (on Emma) is about – his transformation from too-cool-for-this-shit grad student to Janeite. So maybe people taking this journey with him will be turned on to Jane Austen the way he was. Maybe this will be the portal to liking Jane Austen. Who knows?
On the other hand, this blend of memoir and literary criticism is really more literary criticism than it is memoir and if you haven’t read the lit at hand, I’m not sure you’ll like it. His writing is by no means excessively esoteric or academic; one could certainly understand the basics one needed about each novel given his descriptions and analyses. I just don’t know that one would care.
Actually, the one thing that was slightly disappointing was that the memoir stuff was a little too light. He was never funnier than when he was writing self-deprecatingly about early incarnations of himself; I could have done with more of that. But what he writes about Jane Austen – and what he writes about what one is supposed to learn in order to be a worthwhile – “useful” in Jane Austen’s term, which Deresiewicz favors – adult – is truly illuminating.
But my goodness, I got an education about the important things by reading Deresciewicz’s book. And not just about Jane Austen, although that was good, too.
What did I learn about Jane Austen? Well, to begin with, although I am a fan of her novels, until recently I’ve tried to avoid reading about the lives of the authors I like. Somehow it felt to me like a violation of their privacy, or, if not their privacy, than like a disservice to the novels they wrote, like, if I was just looking for the places where the novels were autobiographical, that’s prurient and a disservice to their art. Because it always irritated me in my creative writing workshops when someone would ask of someone else’s story, “Is this you?” But I am old now and not so much of a navel-gazer (hah!) and I begin to see the value in knowing something about one’s favorite authors. (I particularly started to see it when I started reading Jennifer Crusie’s blog. She’s my favorite contemporary romance novelist and when she talks on her blog about feeling frustrated, blocked, and convinced that all of her ideas suck, it makes me feel a lot better about my writing. But I digress. Often.)
Deresiewicz showed me that understanding from other sources, such as letters, of which Jane Austen was a prolific writer, what their general world outlook was, that can illuminate their writings. One of the first defenses he makes of her, for instances, is that she chose to write about the seemingly unimportant trifles of everyday life not because she was so insulated from and ignorant of more wordily matters, but despite her lack of that isolation. Her brothers were in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, her aunt was (perhaps intimately) involved with Warren Hastings, first governor-general of India for Britain, the son of whom was raised in the same household as Austen. So she had access to these grand events of history. She just chose to write about home and hearth instead.
It was not surprising to learn that she was capable of a wicked wit in letters as well as in novels, nor that her letters to her sister from around the time she started writing Pride and Prejudice sounded nearly indistinguishable from conversations between Elizabeth and Jane in the novel. (If anything, Austen was meaner than her literary daughter/avatar; would Elizabeth have ever said, “I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me”?) But knowing the degree to which she was involved with her nieces and nephews, and to what degree they relied on her advice regarding romance, put her novels in a whole new light for me. Her back-and-forth with her niece regarding whether or not said niece should marry a given suitor was marvelously illuminating in terms of the pull Jane Austen felt between “Of course you should marry for love and allow your feelings to guide you!” and “On the other hand, feelings are unreliable, and if he’s a man of good character, your appreciation of that character will lead to love.” It certainly goes a long way in explaining why Sense and Sensibility lacks the spark of Pride and Prejudice. (I like Sense and Sensibility, no question. But Edward is a little dull, let’s not lie here.)
I also learned that Rudyard Kipling was a fan, which struck me as odd, as I was under the impression that Rudyard Kipling doesn’t much like women. (I’m not implying he’s a homosexual. I’m implying he’s a misogynist. It’s weird to me that most male misogynists are not also homosexual, but there you go. On the other hand, it is not weird to me that most homosexual men are not misogynists, because what do they have to hate us for?) Then again, it has always struck me as interesting that Jane Austen is an author, and female, and wrote about “feminine” things, but has always won praise and admiration from many very manly men.
Deresiewicz also gave me a lens to understand why I like Jane Austen and sometimes feel like a bit of an oddball. He writes, “Romanticism bought that society and its conventions are confining and artificial and destructive, and that reason was simply another one of those conventions, not a source of truth. . . . In terms of cultural history, [anti-Romantic] Austen was fighting a losing battle. The Romantic idea gave rise to almost all the great art of the last two centuries . . . It has set the terms for the way we think and fee ever since the time of Austen, and in particular, for the way we think and feel about thinking and feeling.” I, like Austen (and, I think, like my mother), am an anti-Romantic. I don’t believe if it feels good, then it is good. (That’s Sophia’s department.) I do believe you should think first before you act on your feelings. I’m no Puritan, I don’t believe that if it feels good, it’s therefore automatically sinful. I just don’t trust feelings as the primary piece of information on which one should act.
But gosh, some of the lessons he takes from Jane Austen’s novels are lessons I’m sorely in need of, too. So let’s break them down:
In Emma, we learn that it’s always the little things that matter. You can hold yourself up as the intellectual superior to everyone around you, the only one who understands that there are bigger issues out there and more interesting things out there and God everyone around you is so small-minded and boring but that just makes you an irritating twit. Caring about the people around you, and all their foibles and concerns, the most minute piece of thread from the fabric of their lives, is life, so get off
your my goddamned high horse. I need to be reminded of this once every sixty seconds or so. For example, my mother-in-law got me a subscription to Real Simple for Hanukkah. I really like Real Simple most of the time. Its art direction is gorgeous, I like its recipes, I like its random uses of everyday objects (Egg shells as planters for young herbs? Kind of cool.) and despite a tendency towards emotionalism that is a touch too much for cynical me, I really like reading the readers’ answers to various questions on what they do for fun and what they’re reading and all. But sometimes I come across articles like, “Three Ways to Organize a Closet!” and I kind of want to kill myself because it hurts to recognize that this is my demographic now. BUT what I should be learning from Emma and from Deresiewicz is that the closet organizing is important. Or, not so much the closet organizing, but if a loved one wants to talk about their closet-organizing project, I should listen, because it’s the people who are important. I used to be very good at this, at being the kind of girl to whom a Miss Bates could ramble endlessly; I have lost that ability in recent years. Perhaps I will embroider it on a pillow – Everyday Matters.
The lesson from Pride and Prejudice is one I need to hear about every thirty seconds. You will make mistakes, Austen/Deresiewicz tell us, and they will be big, and it will be massively embarrassing to you to 1) own up to them and 2) fix them, but you have to do it or you’ll never grow. Yes, even if you are the most engaging and adorable character in all of literature, you will fuck up. Hugely. Trying to avoid mistakes, or avoid taking responsibility for your mistakes, will not preserve your status as engaging and adorable; it will turn you insufferable and immature. So live, learn, and grow the fuck up. Now that’s what I’m embroidering on a pillow. Grow The Fuck Up.
Northanger Abbey has long been my least favorite Austen. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t have a good movie to go with it. But maybe I should give it a try. The lesson Deresiewicz (I’d complain about having to spell his last name over and over again but hey, my last name is no picnic, either.) draws from it is that you should live with your eyes open, that you should stay young by expecting to be surprised and expecting to change your mind. Subvert dominant paradigms, and the rigorously question the new ones. Gosh, Austen was just awesome.
Deresiewicz sums up the lesson of Mansfield Park thusly. “Being entertained is not the same as being happy.” I am reminded of that line in David Mamet’s State and Main (Sorry, I know he’s an asshole now, but I love that movie.) where Philip Seymour Hoffman says, “I guess you have to make your own fun around here,” and Rebecca Pidgeon responds, “Everyone makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it’s not fun, it’s entertainment.” This is also basically what everyone’s saying about these kids these days with their iThis and their Wii-that. That we lack true purpose and true community and therefore we are depressed and/or entitled and annoying. No arguments there. But this is one of those lessons that totally everyone else needs but not me because I’m better than those spoiled assholes.
Persuasion is not the best-loved Austen book. The character in it is older (okay, twenty-seven, but Austen’s twenty-seven is different from our twenty-seven, okay?) and kind of passive and who lets their dead mom’s best friend tell them who to marry anyway? But I’ve always loved it. I feel Anne because I’ve so been there, girl, with the everyone depending on you but no one really seeing you and the crazy in your life with no one sufficiently not-crazy to talk to about it and the pining for boys who seem to be so not into you. So I get into this one. I love this one. Deresiewicz uses this chapter to talk about friendships, and the ways in which the relationships you choose, and the relationships you strengthen, may include family members, and may (should) include your spouse, but that the formation of a chosen family of like-minded and beloved friends is the key to a happy life. It’s another chapter in which his lesson is being borne out by various psychological studies which I’m sure I’ve read but I’m too lazy to Google now. And it’s certainly rung true in my life. I had a group of friends in college who were my family while I was there, and still are, though we are far-flung now. I am developing a group of friends now who can be counted on for things like bringing me exactly what I want (croissants from Sweet Whimsy; a copy of Game of Thrones that does not have Sean Bean on the cover – all my love to Sean Bean, I just hate that stuff on books) on a shitty birthday, or making the cupcakes for my kid’s birthday party. Good stuff. Necessary stuff, not just to feel happy, I think, but to feel human. (Deresiewicz emphasizes the necessity of having friends who’ll tell you the truth even if you don’t want to hear it. I think that’s important, too, but . . . I think this is more of a guy thing than a girl thing. Or maybe girls in general are very good at being hard on ourselves, and what we need from friends is to tell us we’re really not that bad. Or maybe that’s just me.)
And finally, in Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen drives home her anti-Romantic point. Which I think I’ve got down. I think it’s what attracted me to her in the first place. Plus, this is where we get the story of Deresiewicz’s love, now that he’s learned enough from Jane Austen to find and recognize her, and that was so adorable I fell in love with him a little bit.
I guess the best thing I can say about reading this is that I felt, in the process of reading it, about William Deresiewicz as I do about Jane Austen – that they are my friends, that I have just sat down for a long chat over coffee with them and had a thoroughly enjoyable time.