A sentimental education
Literary critic William Deresiewicz discusses his charming new memoir, A Jane Austen Education, and Austen’s timeless appeal.
Your book describes a series of “life lessons” you learned by reading Jane Austen’s novels, such as how to truly listen to other people’s stories and the value of a true friend. Do you think Austen consciously embedded these lessons in her novels, or was it unintentional?
Definitely intentional. As someone once said, she was a moralist without being moralistic. She didn’t preach, but she definitely wanted to teach—by example. The examples are what happens to her heroines. The lessons Austen imparted are the ones they learn themselves. Their stories are about learning to live better, and we’re supposed to get the idea, too.
You also document your coming-of-age through reading Jane Austen as a graduate student in English. Why do you think it was Austen who brought about this change, and not George Eliot or James Joyce, for example?
Partly it was simply a matter of timing. I discovered Austen at an age when I was probably ready to start learning these things, and through a professor in whose company I was eager to learn. But I also think it’s Austen. For reasons that I think I still don’t fully understand and probably never will, she just spoke to me in a way that no other novelist ever has. There’s something intensely personal about her writing, which is why I think so many people feel they have a personal relationship with it. You feel like she’s talking directly to you. Which is not to say that I haven’t learned important things from George Eliot and James Joyce: Joyce at a younger age than Austen, in college, when every young literary man identifies with Stephen Dedalus; Eliot at an older age. She’s more a writer of limitation and disillusionment.
Your professor Karl Kroeber acts as a kind of father figure in this memoir , introducing you to Austen’s Emma and modeling good teaching. Is it fair to say that Jane Austen was a mother figure?
Yes, I think that’s fair, all the more so because in a lot of ways she projects a maternal presence in her fiction—though the kind of mother who’s as apt to smack you in the head if you do something stupid as she is to nurture and defend you. She regarded her characters as her children, a fact that comes out explicitly in her letters. But for me, I also think it’s more complicated. A mother figure, but also a friend. Maybe a big-sister figure.
What drew you to write this hybrid of memoir and literary criticism for a general audience, as opposed to your scholarly work on Austen?
I’ve been writing about literature for a general audience for a long time, as a book critic. Actually, the fact that I was more interested in doing that than in scholarly work is the reason I decided to leave academia. The memoir part is new for me, though, and it’s been an interesting challenge: a technical challenge to blend the two and a personal challenge to be so candid in such a public way. The second part is a little frightening. As for why I decided to write the book this way, well, the idea was to convey the lessons I learned by reading Jane Austen, and I realized pretty quickly that the best way to do that would be to actually talk about the way I learned them, not just explain them in some kind of abstract and impersonal way.
What did you think of the recent Masterpiece Theater production of Emma? Was it faithful to that book's lessons?
Oops. I haven’t watched it yet. I tend to be wary of Jane Austen adaptations because so many of them are such travesties. But I should give it a shot.
Jane Austen taught you moral seriousness, how to be an adult and, ultimately, how to love. What would you like your book to convey to its audience?
First, that her books aren’t just soap operas and aren’t just fun—though of course they’re incredibly fun—they also have a lot of serious and important and very wise things to say. Second, that they aren’t just about romance (which is usually the only thing the movies have room for, or interest in). And finally, that they aren’t just for women. I would love it if the book helped introduce more men to her work. Maybe people could get it for their boyfriends/husbands/brothers.
What advice do you think Jane Austen would give to a contemporary single woman in want of a relationship?
Ha! Great question. The first thing I think she would say is, don’t settle. Then, marry for the right reasons: for love, not for money or appearances or expectations. But most importantly—and this is what I talk about in the love chapter, the last chapter—don’t fall for all the romantic clichés about Romeo and Juliet and love at first sight. For Austen, love came from the mind as well as the heart. She didn’t believe you could fall in love with someone until you knew them, and then what you fell in love with was their character more than anything else, whether they were a good person and also an interesting one. So I guess that means, date someone for a while before you commit, and don’t get so carried away by your feelings that you forget to give a good hard look at who they are. As for sex, it’s not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would’ve liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it’s too late.
Do you think Jane Austen still has more to teach you?
Absolutely. Every time I read her novels I learn something new.
Review of A Jane Austen Education.