Equal parts sentimental education and literary guidebook, William Deresiewicz’s enjoyable memoir about coming of age through reading Jane Austen’s novels offers life lessons from which any reader could benefit. Discovering Austen as a callow graduate student, Deresiewicz finds himself surprised and humbled by her intelligence, and ultimately changed forever by her insight into “everything that matters.”
Emma is the tool of his conversion: Reading it for the first time, Deresiewicz finds himself bored and irritated by the endless discussions of card parties and neighborhood matters, identifying with Emma Woodhouse’s disdain for the provincial town of Highbury. But when Emma insults the scatterbrained Miss Bates at a picnic, Deresiewicz has his “a-ha” moment: Emma’s cruelty mirrors his own, and Austen knows it. Therefore, Emma’s lesson in humility must also be his own; both must learn to appreciate the “minute particulars,” those apparently trivial details that make up the fabric of real life.
With Jane Austen as his teacher, Deresiewicz learns from Pride and Prejudice that growing up is a never-ending process; from Mansfield Park that truly listening to other people’s stories is the best way to be helpful to them; and from Persuasion the importance of building a community of friends. Vignettes from Deresiewicz’s life and episodes from Austen’s biography are seamlessly interwoven with discussions of the novels, beautifully illustrating the interdependence of reading, writing and real life. Whether it is the challenge of gaining distance from his overbearing father, the temptations of friendship with wealthy, idle people or the pursuit of for-real adult love, Deresiewicz turns to Jane Austen as a wise and kind, if occasionally tart, teacher/aunt/elder. This is a fresh and appealing take on the coming-of-age memoir, pleasurably demonstrating that books really can change your life.
Deresiewicz is an award-winning literary critic and a former professor of English at Yale University. It is sure proof of his literary talent that A Jane Austen Education is so eminently readable, both substantive and entertaining. I found myself galloping through it, inspired to turn back to Jane Austen myself to see what lessons her novels have for me.