Book Review: A Jane Austen Education

Brenda S. Cox’s Review of  A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

“I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever. Her name was Jane Austen, and she would teach me everything I know about everything that matters.”—William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education (p. 1).

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A Jane Austen Education gives deep insights into Austen’s novels.

This book is not technically about faith. But it does have a lot to say about character, as well as truth, values, and life, as found in Jane Austen. It’s full of fascinating insights into the deeper meanings in Jane Austen’s novels, things I hadn’t noticed before. And I loved it so much I just have to tell you about it. Also, it gives us a man’s perspective, unusual in the Jane Austen community. (Plus, a pastor’s wife recommended it to me!)

Deresiewicz (whose background is Jewish) shares about his own life experiences and how Jane Austen’s books helped him to grow. The subtitle of the book is, “How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter.”

Here are examples of insights from the novels:

Emma: Everyday Matters (chapter 1)

Deresiewicz didn’t much care for Emma at first. Then, after the Box Hill episode where Emma is rude to the garrulous spinster Miss Bates, he realized:

“Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. 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” (12).

Ouch. Emma shows us our own failures to love and be patient with others.

Miss Bates at Box Hill
Emma’s impatience with Miss Bates helps us see our own impatience and unkindness.

Austen also shows us our own impatience with the small, daily things that are so important:

“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” (12).

“Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself” (33).

Moral seriousness—this, to me, and to Jane Austen, is a faith issue. We follow God’s ways in the little things, which are just as important as the big ones (maybe more important).

Deresiewicz saw the power of teaching through stories. He says:

“Like all the great teachers, I now saw, she made us come to her. She had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages. Her ‘littleness’ was really an optical illusion, a test. Jesus spoke in parables so his disciples would have to make an effort to understand him. The truth, he knew, cannot be grasped in any other way” (15).

The chapter continues with insights about Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax. I’ll leave you to read the book to discover those!

Pride and Prejudice: Growing Up (chapter 2)

In Pride and Prejudice, Deresiewicz also makes a connection to the heroine. Self-confident Elizabeth discovers she has totally misjudged both Darcy and Wickham. The author says,

“if Elizabeth had been wrong about everything, then so had I. I had made the very same judgments that she had, and I had made them every bit as badly. This was indeed a different experience from reading Emma. That novel had invited me to laugh at its heroine, with all her ridiculous schemes. But this time, the joke was on me” (48).

This novel taught him to make mistakes and learn from them; essentially, “how to grow up” (50). “Growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct” (51). It’s not about self-confidence or self-esteem, he continues. “For Austen, growing up means making mistakes” (52).

Darcy gives letter to Elizabeth
Elizabeth Bennet’s mistakes in judgment help her to grow up.

Character and conduct. Again, for Austen those were religious values; her faith showed her how to live and act with integrity.

Northanger Abbey: Learning to Learn (chapter 3)

I love this description of how Henry Tilney taught Catherine Morland:

“Instead of training Catherine to follow the conventions of life in her society, like Isabella or Mrs. Allen—training her unconsciously, to follow them unconsciously—Henry was trying to wake her up to them by showing her how absurd they were. But he didn’t do it by being didactic. He did it by provoking her, taking her by surprise, making her laugh, throwing her off balance, forcing her to figure out what was going on and what it meant—getting her to think, not telling her how” (88).

And it’s true of Jane Austen as well:

“Austen, like Henry, taught by showing—which means, by arousing. By putting something in front of us and expecting us to think about it” (92-3).

Mansfield Park: Being Good (chapter 4)

Deresiewicz connects Mansfield Park with a time in his life when he was attracted to a stylish group of upper-class New Yorkers. Their values were much like those of Henry and Mary Crawford, shallow and motivated by “restless discontent” (144). Mary begins to appreciate deeper values, saying to her friends at Mansfield, “You have all so much more heart among you, than one finds in the world at large.” Deresiewicz comments, “‘Heart’—Mary’s stammering attempt to name the things she was starting to learn how to value: moral seriousness, depth of feeling, constancy of purpose. Inner riches—things you can’t buy, things you have to earn” (151-2). He says Fanny is the one with a rich inner life, with deep emotions. “Fanny, I realized, was not just different from the privileged people around her; she was their exact opposite. They had everything and wanted more; she had little and was willing to make do with less. Instead of responding to adversity with petulance and spite, she handled it with fortitude, resilience, and, when necessary, resignation” (155).

Finally, someone who appreciates Fanny’s strength!

Fanny and Mary
Even Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to recognize Fanny Price’s strength of character.

Another lesson learned from Mansfield Park is the importance of listening to someone else’s story, as Edmund listens to Fanny when she arrives at Mansfield. Listening to others is a great ministry to them. Deresiewicz also talks about the importance of “duty,” “exertion,” and “usefulness” in the novel, which in Austen’s lexicon are Christian virtues.

I’ll just give brief quotes from the final chapters, to give you a taste of the riches to be found there:

Persuasion: True Friends (chapter 5)

“Putting your friend’s welfare before your own: that was Austen’s idea of true friendship. That means admitting when you’re wrong, but even more importantly, it means being willing to tell your friend when they are” (194).

Sense and Sensibility: Falling in Love (chapter 6)

“In choosing a mate . . . the most important thing is character. Grace and spirit and manners—the kinds of qualities that attracted Marianne to Willoughby—are wonderful to have, but they are no substitute for the Edwardlike attributes of worth and heart and understanding. All of Austen’s heroes had the second; only a couple were also blessed with the first” (225).

The End of the Story (chapter 7)

When he had fights with his serious girlfriend, Deresiewicz writes, “But what saved me, at those times, were two things that I had learned from Austen: that my girlfriend’s perspective was just as valid as mine, however much it killed me in the middle of an argument to acknowledge it, and that if I had done something wrong, then allowing myself to recognize as much—no matter how awful it was to admit it, no matter how humiliating it was to have to lose a fight in which I had invested so much ego—was ultimately going to be good for me” (251-2).

As Deresiewicz tells his own story in the course of the book, he shows us his journey, his search for meaning. He describes relationships with others that are primarily about sex, or power, or selfishness. By the end, though, what he’s describing sounds much more like love.

These are powerful lessons to change a person’s life; and all from our beloved Jane Austen! I highly recommend A Jane Austen Education, which has a lot more to say to us than I have shared here.

What life lessons have you learned from Jane Austen? Do any of the lessons mentioned above particularly resonate with you?

Caveat: There are mentions of premarital sex in this book, and a few instances of bad language. It might be rated PG.

All quotes are from William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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