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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

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Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same. Honest, erudite, and deeply moving, A Jane Austen Education is the story of one man’s discovery of the world outside himself.

255 pages, Hardcover

First published April 28, 2011

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About the author

William Deresiewicz

17 books239 followers
William Deresiewicz was an associate professor of English at Yale University until 2008 and is a widely published book critic. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Bookforum, and The American Scholar. He was nominated for National Magazine awards in 2008 and 2009 and the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2010.

Wlliam Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent college speaker, and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He taught English at Yale and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer in 2008.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 839 reviews
Profile Image for Holly.
1,012 reviews226 followers
August 13, 2016
Brain-nuking platitudes! I thought this was going to be an interesting little book by the William Deresiewicz who wrote that American Scholar piece on solitude and leadership that blew me away earlier this year. But instead I find dreck. All the Goodreads reviewer but approximately one appear to love it, and the one who didn't is spot on:
Take one intellectual graduate student, force him to read Emma, add one professor whose technique is styled as "stripping the paint off our brains," and mix in some Austen plot synopses. What do you get? In this case, you get a quasi-memoir-cum-appreciation of Jane Austen's major novels that (I believe) would make Austen wince and Oprah applaud.

Ouch. And here is Danish writer Morten Hoi Jensen at Open Letters Monthly:
So you have six trite, facile chapter headings like this: “Emma: Everyday matters”; “Mansfield Park: Being good”; “Sense and Sensibility: Falling in love.” And each chapter, as their headings suggest, offers straightforward, if hard-earned, lessons on each subject. Emma: “Life is lived at the level of the little…Emma’s life finally became real to her, and in reading about her life I felt mine becoming real to me”; Pride and Prejudice: “the novel was really showing me how to grow up”; Northanger Abbey: “the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise”; Mansfield Park: “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without”; Persuasion: “Friends, Austen taught me, are the family you chose”; Sense and Sensibility: “the essential requirement for love…is simply to possess a loving heart.” [. . . ] You hardly need to read Jane Austen, let alone six of her novels, to come up with such brain-nuking platitudes.[. . .] But Deresiewicz, [. . .] proves almost ludicrously reductive in his approach to the subject and, as a result, preposterously self-serving: the pursuit for the teachings of Jane Austen come at too high a price to Jane Austen; the equilibrium that ought to exist when an author has the nerve to explicate his own life parallel to some of the most beloved literary lives in the world is terminally overturned.

I would add that it is facile and boring; too crafted (over-"produced"); in bad faith, somehow; and the book left me feeling cynical, despite it's lofty life-changing rhetoric.
Profile Image for Claire.
124 reviews45 followers
February 12, 2013
A few days ago, while I was finishing my reread of Mansfield Park and loving it more than I thought I would, I stumbled, here on GR, on a rather heterosexist (and when I say rather, I mean very) review of Pride and Prejudice that said that women appreciate it because they fall in love with Darcy.
I never loved Mr. Darcy, not really. I like him and all, and I can see the appeal of the likes of Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, but what I always loved were Elizabeth, Kitty's ill timed coughs and Mr Collins's Lady Catherines and probably more than anything else I love the talk of money and of the society rules that influence the thoughts and actions of the characters.

It was refreshing to read a book by a man, who writes a sort of long thank you note to Jane Austen, a memoir in which he explains what he learned from her six novels. For the most part Deresiewicz hardly mentions love at all, and focuses on other aspects of Austen that I think are usually overlooked by people who haven't read her books closely, or at all. The importance of friendship, of knowing one's true self, of community (I loved the chapter on Persuasion, about how Anne creates a family of her own with the friends from the navy and distances herself from her poisonous relatives).
The chapter about Sense and Sensibility is the one in which he explores Austen's idea of love, and as I was reading it I thought that people consider her a writer of romance and think that's sort of embarrassing, but then in life almost everybody thinks love and companionship are one the most important things: just, for God's sake, let me not read it in a novel by a woman who writes happy endings.
Deresiewicz argues that Austen is so good at writing love stories, and her heroines are successful in marriage (while there are many examples of unhappy ones, like the Bennets') because, instead of falling in love, they grow into it. Anne Elliot at nineteen wasn't mature enough to stand her ground with her family and friend; Marianne Dashwood was convinced that only someone who mirrored her perfectly could make her happy; Elizabeth Bennet thought herself a great judge of character.
Her world is not a fantasy world, it's a sometimes very cruel one.

This is a funny and at times moving book, about the power of literature to influence our worldview and our daily life, about how there's more than meets the eye, in people and in books, and it's a love story between the author and "the most perfect artist among women".
Profile Image for Abigail Bok.
Author 4 books207 followers
September 9, 2017
Former associate professor William Deresiewicz has written what is today a rather unusual type of book. At first blush it looks like an entry in the exploding genre of popular Jane Austen criticism, and in a way it could be so described. But it’s really more of a memoir—a memoir that uses literary criticism as a vehicle for explaining the author’s moral and intellectual development at a certain stage of his life. Seen in that light, it is a throwback to a kind of book that was common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: it could be regarded as a lineal descendant of young English gentlemen’s accounts of their Grand Tours, replete with literary allusion and intellectual name-dropping and insights about the world—but adapted to modern confessional sensibilities.

If all that makes this book sound a bit pretentious and off-putting, however, I apologize—because it isn’t either of those things. It is, in fact, utterly disarming and quite accessible. No literary theory in sight!

Deresiewicz introduces himself to us as an obnoxious grad student, superior, cocky, self-involved, and a hater of Jane Austen without ever having read her work. But then he’s required to read Emma for a class, and something happens to him. The story of the superior, cocky, and self-involved heroine allows him to see himself for the first time. The first chapter in A Jane Austen Education eloquently describes his path through the novel and the self-discovery to which it guides him.

He moves on to Pride and Prejudice and learns a thing or two about the arrogance of one’s own opinions, about being sure you’re right when you’re really dead wrong. These two chapters completely sucked me in to both his journey and his way of reading Austen. What a wow to read!

As he progresses through the rest of the novels, though, I felt the energy and the personal insights fall off a bit. It seemed like a case of diminishing revelatory returns. His interpretations of Austen also became a little less convincing for me, particularly a tendency to be inconsistent in his application of the mine-field term romance to her novels. He seemed to want them to be both romance and not-romance (in the modern understanding of the term), depending on where he was in his own emotional development.

By no means do I wish to imply, however, that the later chapters have no value. The entire book was a delight to read, and I gobbled it in a few days. I particularly appreciate an interpretation of Austen that lays heavy emphasis on ethics, because I believe her novels are all about the ethics of social interaction. They are masterpieces of humanism, and Deresiewicz has used them to produce a compelling humanist manifesto of his own. I highly recommend this book to fans of Jane Austen—and would love to give a copy to every smug, self-absorbed young person I know!
Profile Image for Belinda.
487 reviews12 followers
August 23, 2011
This book is a blend of light textual analysis, Jane Austen biography and memoir. As I haven't studied literature beyond high school, I enjoyed the textual analysis and did gain a new perspective of aspects of these texts. I also enjoyed the biographical information, especially the quotes from letters written by Austen and her family.

What I found incredibly frustrating about this book was the memoir aspect. Basically, Deresiewicz says he was a self-centred, arrogant psuedo intellectual who is a bit of a wanker. He reads Emma, female fiction he had previously thought below him, and it changed his life. It makes him appreciate the small things; the mutinae of his life and those of his friends and the people around him, and therefore he becomes a better person. So far so good. I have met my fair share of university wankers and have done quite a bit of cringe-worthy arrogant posturing myself, so the picture he painted of himself rang true. I also have read books that have made me appreciate the universe in a different way, so I bought that. However, following the Emma chapter, Deresiewicz takes great pains to draw parallels between the "lessons" of the Austen books and decisions that he made in his own life. This irritated me for two reasons. Firstly, claiming to know what Austen is saying through her characters smacks of the arrogance that Emma was supposed to remove from his behaviour. Determining an author's intentions from the actions of their characters is not possible with the certainty this author uses. Secondly, by the time Deresiewicz gets to Sense and Sensibility he's stretching so far to draw parallels between the novel and his life that the story becomes completely unconvincing. The author also plays cute when describing the novels themselves, rarely stating which characters end up together and not outlining the "spoilers" in Pride and Prejudice. Umm, Bill, you're writing a book on works of fiction which are hundreds of years old and have been adapted for screen many many times. I strongly doubt there are many readers who would read this book instead of reading the original texts. What were you thinking avoiding spoilers?!?!?

I really feel many of these problems should have been identified by the book's editor. Deresiewicz's reflections on his private life take up at least one third of the book yet he does not give a single secondary character a name. Telling us in Chapter 1 that your sense of self-importance was diminished through the influence of the works of Jane Austen and then being the ONLY character given a name in a book that features a whole host of people - epic fail. An inordinately large amount of the book's sentences starts with the simple pronoun 'I', - a major writing no-no. He makes a point of telling us that at his university, literature students held allegiance to either Austen or a Bronte. Obviously he was a Janeite. Then he finished the book with a line that references Jane Eyre!! ARGH!! Too much annoyance!!

Avoid this book if you are easily irritated.
Profile Image for Melanie.
390 reviews34 followers
July 2, 2011
Take one intellectual graduate student, force him to read Emma, add one professor whose technique is styled as "stripping the paint off our brains," and mix in some Austen plot synopses. What do you get? In this case, you get a quasi-memoir-cum-appreciation of Jane Austen's major novels that (I believe) would make Austen wince and Oprah applaud.

Profile Image for Laurel.
Author 1 book326 followers
January 9, 2019
We have long harbored the belief that everything worth knowing about life and love can be learned in a Jane Austen novel. William Deresiewicz thinks so too, and we could not be happier. In A Jane Austen Education he soundly reaffirms our opinion that the world would be a better place if everyone just paid attention and listened to Jane Austen.

We realize that he is preaching to the choir here, but thought it important to point out that he started out in a much different place as a twenty-six year old graduate student who thought Austen was all girly romance and banal social drivel. He may have been as arrogant as Mr. Darcy, as clueless as Emma Woodhouse and opinionated as Lady Catherine de Bourgh when it came to acknowledging Austen’s understated writing skills and message to her readers, but during the process of reading Emma, one of Austen’s most scrutinized and acclaimed novels, he had an intellectual epiphany. This will certainly grab the attention of half the population. A man admitting that he likes Jane Austen is unusual. Writing a whole book about the process of conversion, understanding what Austen wants to teach us and applying it to his own life, is a revelation! Dear reader. I must curb myself from gushing for fear of losing my credibility.

How William Deresiewicz came to evolve into an enlightened Y-chromosome is one heck of a great story. We are encouraged that other Janeites will think so too. We also hope that his tour through each of the six major novels will convert a few naysayers. Even though he was an associate professor of English at Yale University, he does not talk down to us from an ivory tower. Part literary criticism, part personal memoir and a lot of Austen doctrine, his prose is open, engaging and very humorous. There are several “light bulb” moments. Here is some of the pithy advice he learned from the master.

Emma: Pay attention to everyday matters. Be in the moment.
Pride and Prejudice: Nobody’s perfect. We are destined to make mistakes. Just learn from them.
Northanger Abbey: Life is an adventure. Be open to change and growth.
Mansfield Park: Understand the difference between being entertained and being happy. It’s a big one.
Persuasion: Be honest. Unconditional friendship serves no one. A true friend remains constant even if the truth hurts.
Sense and Sensibility: Love means never having to say you’re sorry! (just kidding) It’s actually the opposite. Healthy conflicts keep relationships sound.

Our favorite chapter was number four – Mansfield Park: Being Good. We regularly seek out opinions on Jane Austen’s controversial novel, considered by some to be her dark horse, hoping for further enlightenment. He certainly nails it on the head by pegging the heroine. “Prim, proper, priggish, prudish, puritanical, Fanny simply couldn’t deal with the threat of adult sexuality. And to top it off, she didn’t even like to read novels.” Characters who do not like to read novels are a red flag in Austen canon, so we were more than a bit piqued on how he was going to deal with this and turn it into an Austen lesson. Fanny Price was the heroine after all. How could Austen make us dislike her? He also admitted that the rest of the characters were “mainly different flavors of awful.” Too true. Paralleling his own life was an adventure of a Jersey boy playing high with rich Manhattanites, and questioning who he was becoming.

“I returned to my dissertation (on Austen), that somehow had already told me everything I needed to know about that world before I’d even encountered it, only I hadn’t been able to listen. For where was I, I finally saw, but smack in the middle of a Jane Austen novel – and one of them, in fact, in particular? What was the realm of luxury and cruelty, glamour and greed, coldness and fun, if not a modern-day version of Mansfield Park?” Page 91

Like Fanny Price during the Mansfield Park theatrical, he realized that he could only ever be a powerless spectator in the alien environment of New York City. He eventually begins to understand Austen’s cunning strategy in the narrative of Mansfield Park and how it applied to his life, his friends and his responses to them. We will not reveal the final outcome, but for those who do not understand Mansfield Park, you might see it in a new light. That alone was worth our price of admission.

We love this book, and not just because it has the best cover we have seen in years (we concede to being swayed by book eye candy), but because it is embodies Austen’s craft of “minute particulars” and reinforces our personal belief system! We were truly agog and enchanted with every word.

Laurel Ann, Austenprose
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 28 books5,674 followers
April 27, 2018
My mom sent me and my sister each a copy of this after she read it for her book club! Thank you, Mom! This book is awesome, both as a literary exploration of Jane Austen and as a self help book. I don't really like self-help books, personally, but Deresiewicz's style is so engaging and down-to-earth that I just adored it. He freely admits his mistakes, he is honest about what he likes and doesn't like about Jane Austen, her books, and his life. The book is divided into six sections, one about each of Austen's finished novels, and breaks down a major theme of the book, with specific regards to Deresiewicz's life and how the novel helped him be a better person. He talks about education, maturity, friendships, and marriage, among other things, and really makes you understand both the subtle genius of Austen's writing and how it can be useful to each and every one of us!
Profile Image for  ~Geektastic~.
234 reviews148 followers
January 11, 2016
I don’t read Jane Austen’s novels for life lessons. Neither do I read her for history, romance or social commentary. I read Jane Austen because I have never (and I mean that unequivocally) met an author with such a gift for words. However, this does not mean that I won’t read and enjoy the lessons someone else has gleaned from her work. In fact, I have probably read more words about Austen and her works than she has actually written, the juvenilia and incomplete works included.

As far as criticism and commentary go, this book is not a bad place to start. Part memoir, part critical examination, A Jane Austen Education combines the author’s personal experience with a fairly close reading of Austen’s six major works. Each of Austen’s books is given a chapter, and each chapter is structured so as to illustrate Deresiewicz’s personal experience and how it both reflects upon and is reflected by each work.

It would be very easy to argue that the events of his life sync up a little too perfectly with the novels to be entirely true to life, but I don’t think this is the case. Austen’s works, though often saddled with the unfair reputation of being “exclusive” and historically specific are, in fact, highly universal and relatable from nearly any perspective. Now granted, I’m prejudiced in her favor, but I think his success with so clearly delineating the intersection of his life experience and her fiction is a very strong argument for the universal relatability (probably not a real word) of her work. Perhaps the conclusions drawn are a bit trite at times; the subtitle of the work is the first clue that this is a tendency of the author. However, I found his readings of the work very illuminating, and the “intrusions” of memoir are actually not the bulk of the book, and more often operate to reinforce his readings, rather than the books highlighting the events of his life.

As I choose not to devote my life to only reading Jane Austen (though I read through the six major works once a year), I love when I can find a book about her work that engages me nearly as much as hers do. This one has its weaknesses, but if you like Jane Austen and are looking for a lay-person’s approach (though he is an English professor) to her work, I definitely recommend it. My only real complaint is that it was too short to do all of his observations justice.
Profile Image for Amy.
2,628 reviews414 followers
June 30, 2020
Part memoir, part literary analysis, and part love letter to Jane Austen, A Jane Austen Education was an easy, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks for sending it to me, Kris.

Lucy Worsley says often in Jane Austen at Home that you find in Austen's works what you look for. The thought applies well here, though not in the way I expected.
What initially appealed to me was simply the male perspective it provides on Jane Austen. Just about everyone I know who loves Jane Austen is female. Heck, the only Austen-esque movie I can get my Dad and brothers to watch with me with any regularity is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But the professor who first got me thinking 'academically' about Austen was male and looking back now I wish I had dug deeper into why she was his favorite author. (With the self-absorption of 18, I just assumed it was the same reason she was my favorite author!)
Surely, I reasoned when picking up this book, 'with a male perspective we won't get a shout out to Colin Firth's wet shirt scene for once.' (We do.) 'It will be an analysis that treats her not as a writer of romantic stories, but as a social commentator.' (Social commentary is there, but mostly romance.) 'At least it won't be one of those books where we're supposed to care about the author's search for Mr. Darcy.' (Well, I guess 'search for Lizzie Bennet' was more what we got.)
The book wasn't what I expected. But because it sounded so much like the things I already knew and loved about Austen, it made me appreciate her even more. The wonder of Austen is that her themes cross time, gender, and geography. She captures some of those elements of being human that apply everywhere. And this memoir helps draw that out.
I also enjoyed Deresiewicz's analysis of the novels. He made me appreciate Mansfield Park in a way none of my other readings about Austen's work have before.
This isn't a particularly hard hitting book. It is a memoir and with some tidbits about Jane Austen's biography thrown in with plot summaries of her books and analysis of her themes. We learn a lot about the author's own romantic woes and issues with his Dad.
But...at the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned more about Austen. I never felt Deresiewicz overshadowed Austen (my biggest problem with All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane.)And I genuinely looked forward to finding out what happened to him (and his journey for love) by the end.
What finally pushed it to five stars for me was simply how easy a read it was. Maybe this was a right time/right place/right mood thing. But it genuinely felt like chatting with a friend about our mutual appreciation for a great writer. The fact that I also learned to think more critically about Austen's works was just icing on the cake.
Profile Image for Amy.
Author 1 book35 followers
August 8, 2011
Anyone who knows me relatively well, knows I love Jane Austen's books. I have read Pride and Prejudice more times than I can remember, own all her works, and quite a few of the movie adaptations of those books.

There are those who dismiss Austen as merely a romance novelist of the Regency period and, while its true that romance is definitely a large component of her work, I think those people who categorize her as such are missing the forest for the trees. William Deresiewicz does a fine job in illustrating what a newcomer to Austen's books might find amongst their pages.

Like most reviewers here, I was intrigued to read the book simply because it was written by a man. I know men who have had to read Jane Austen, but I only know one in all I've met who has actually enjoyed the experience. I was dying to 'meet' another and read what he had to say about Austen's influence on his life.

While I felt Deresiewicz 'reached' a bit at times to draw correlations between his life and the lives of Austen's characters, over all I adored this book. Deresiewicz paints a delightful picture of himself as a pretentious, arrogant graduate student who, when forced to read Emma for a class, is sure Austen has nothing to offer him. To his astonishment, not only does he come away from that 'first introduction' having learned Austen's talent of writing the 'subtleties of everyday life', he leaves a devotee of the author.

If you love Jane Austen, this is a 'must read'. Deresiewicz will remind you why you fell in love with some of the best of Austen's novels (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion), but will also encourage you to revisit those which weren't as 'pert' to find treasures you'd missed.

I meant to add this bit of exerpt from the book because I found it amusing:

..a lot of people hate Jane Austen for just that reason. They see her as cold and prudish, a schoolmarm and killjoy ... Now, there are a lot of great nineteenth century novels, but almost all of us chose one of only two: Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. It may seem a small matter, but great issues were felt to be at stake (as they always are in graduate school). The decision wasn't just a pedagogical choice, it was a statement of faith, a declaration of self, for the books represented the strongest possible expressions of two diametrically opposed views of life.
Pride and Prejudice, reason triumphs over feeling and will. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë's own typically Romantic coming-of-age story, emotion and ego overcome all obstacles. Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn't imagine how you could stand to read anything as immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn't believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. Our choices, of course, reflected our personalities. The Brontë people, we Austenites felt, tended to go in for self-dramatization and ideological extremism. We regarded ourselves as a cooler, more ironic bunch."

When asked what my favorite books are, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are the first I list. Depending on mood, one will be listed before the other as my absolute favorite, although more often than not, it's Pride and Prejudice. I love them both which begs the question: how can I hold two diametrically opposed views of life? ;)
Profile Image for Christy.
130 reviews
July 11, 2016
How do you miss the whole point of Jane Austen? Read this book to find out!
Profile Image for Carol Bakker.
1,207 reviews79 followers
September 11, 2021
Last month, once I got beyond sleeping all day, I cast around my library for a comfort read. Comfortable and nourishing, like butternut squash soup. Deresiewicz's memoir fit the bill. He read all of Austen in graduate school and comingles his insights into her works with epiphanies he had in his personal life. His own journey from timid/overbearing to humble/confident is fun to watch.

Like so many guys, I thought that a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics, whatever. But I wasn't just aggressively certain of myself — though of course I never let anyone finish a sentence and delivered my opinions as if they'd come direct from Sinai.
Profile Image for Anna Mussmann.
422 reviews67 followers
January 27, 2018
Deresiewicz's memoir tells how, as a graduate student in English, he slowly acquired the values that allowed him to grow up, learn to be a friend, and become capable of true love. His teacher in all this was Jane Austen. His book is structured around Austen's six novels (one chapter each) and interweaves events from his own life with commentary upon the major lesson he drew from each book.

My reaction was mixed. On the one hand, Deresiewicz writes engagingly and is easy to read. It's a lot of fun to hear someone talk intelligently about Jane Austen. One of his most interesting arguments about Austen's work is found in the way he addresses the "challenge" of Mansfield Park (in which the heroine seems passive and prudish to most modern readers, and indeed, objected to activities that Austen herself seems to have enjoyed) and of Sense and Sensibility (in which Elinor's love story, minus the tweaks made in the Emma Thompson film, doesn't appeal to many modern readers).

His interpretation of Mansfield Park is that, in order to make a point, Austen essentially split the character of Elizabeth Bennet into two. Fanny gets Lizzy's virtue. Mary Crawford gets Lizzy's sparkle, fun, and wit. The idea of the story is to put the two halves in contrast in order to force readers to realize that virtue--though initially less appealing--is ultimately even more important than sparkle. He doesn't think that even Jane Austen *liked* Fanny, but that Fanny is a clever literary device. Similarly, he thinks that most readers of Sense and Sensibility will initially prefer Marianne over Elinor. He feels the author deliberately stripped Elinor and Edward of what we would call "romance" so that the point--that Elinore's definition of love is better--will be both harder and easier to see.

I'm not sure whether or not I fully buy this argument. In my experience, whether readers initially prefer Elinor or Marianne is not a given but instead depends a great deal on the reader's personality. Surely that weakens Deresiewicz's interpretation? It would be interesting to know if Austen herself commented on the contrast between the sisters.

On the other hand, Deresiewicz, while appreciating and learning from aspects of Jane Austen's moral outlook, is not willing to go the whole way and reexamine all of his modern values. He certainly has no intention of giving up modern sexual mores (in fact, he suggests that had Jane Austen lived in the era of modern contraception and women's economic freedom, she likely would have been totally OK with sex outside of marriage). Because of this, there are passages that feel as if his literary analyses is simply an attempt to find a way to interpret his favorite author in a way that won't clash with some of his own views.

I was least sold on his approach to Persuasion. The lessons he apparently gleaned from that book are a stretch, and I think he may have "read them in" rather than "read them out." He argues that the novel is a discussion of community. People shouldn't feel that they must remain in the orbit of their family, but should instead build their own community from friends and a few self-selected relatives. Well, OK--it's true that Anne Elliot's family life is pathetic when contrasted with the happy friendships found among the maritime characters, and that she presumably exchanges one for the other. Yet she only does so through marriage, i.e., through the formation of a new family. Besides, Austen's books are filled with the assumption that one is supposed to attempt to be loyal to, to serve, and even to love unsatisfactory families.

The author uses Anne Elliot's conversations with Captain Benwick (that fellow mourning the loss of his fiance) as evidence that Austen was one of the first writers to assert that men and women can be (just) friends. Hmm. Anne and Benwick had what, four conversations? Surely that doesn't prove one way or another whether Austen believed in the modern manifestation of male/female besties?

Overall, this memoir was a quick, enjoyable read. Some of the discussion was fascinating. Some was stuff I've heard before. Some seemed far-fetched. Ultimately the book fell under the category of "something to read as quick entertainment" rather than "something really deep," at least for me.
Profile Image for Emily.
893 reviews150 followers
October 14, 2020
3.5 rounded up. As others have noted, there's a fair amount of banal summarization of plots, but on the whole this is charming, and basically, I can read about people trying to express why they love Jane Austen til the cows come home.
Profile Image for Julie Bestry.
Author 2 books23 followers
September 4, 2011
I'd had this title on my Amazon wish list since the day it came out, but was happily surprised to find my library had just acquired a copy. Since I'm pretty frugal, I have to say I'm glad I didn't pay for this...which is not to say it's unworthy. But the book is about 50% memoir, with the remainder given over to professorial analysis of the six Austen novels (and cursory commentary about Austen's actual life). The author is very honest about what a jerk he was, but not warm enough for me to feel he's not looking for a pat on the back regarding his self-awareness. And he ends his book with a Bronte reference, which makes one feel that he things Austen and (Charlotte) Bronte are interchangeable in the reader's eyes, as far as referential in-jokes go!

But I guess that's the point...the book is about what Jane's books taught him, and if he was damaged and jerky and managed to climb out of it a bit through reading and understanding Jane, then good for him. I have to wonder if the author had been a woman, if I might have been more open to his plight.

The biggest problem I found with the book was not what he said, but what he didn't say...enough! He didn't say nearly enough about anything. He seems to recognize Austen's genius in surprising but beside-the-point ways. He's entirely focused on the "moral of the story" aspect and pays no attention to the things I love about Austen books. He practically ignores the men in the books -- indeed, Henry Tilney and henry Crawford are given 10 times, perhaps 100 times the attention that he gives Darcy, Knightly and Edward Ferrars combined!

But he did make me rethink some things. I'd always wondered about Austen's purpose in creating such a dishrag of a character as Fanny Price, so unlike Austen's other heroines, and he explains (in a professorial"this is the reason" approach rather than a gentle "I think this is the reason" nudge) why Austen did so. I'm not sure I agree, but it did make me think.

I'm not sure what to make of his assertion of Marianne Dashwood as a heroine or protagonist. To me, Marianne is no more central to the novel than Jane Bennet is to P&P. His underlying and eventual analysis of the Dashwoo's romantic experiences seems like it's going in the right direction, but in the end, he's off the mark, or so I think.

Blah, blah, blah. The point is, if you don't already love Austen, this book won't mean much, and if you do love Austen, then you'll want to devour this as much as any other modern analysis. It's an easy read, especially given that Deresiewicz is an academician, but it's not exactly a delight. If I were grading it, I'd give it a B. It held my attention, but did not capture my heart.
Profile Image for Carol.
825 reviews
February 1, 2015
What an excellent read! It took me two days to read this 255 page book on "A Jane Austen Education. This is a beautiful memoir written by New Yorker/ Connecticut author William Deresiewicz, whose life was completely transformed by Jane Austen's literature: which not only revealed the remarkable life lessons hidden within her six novels- – Emma: “everyday matters;” Pride and Prejudice: “growing up;” Northanger Abbey: “Learning to Learn;” Mansfield Park: ”Being Good;” Persuasion: “True Friends;” Sense and Sensibility: “Falling in Love;” and the ending.

Austen preferred to write about what she was about, and refused all temptations to wander from her course. Austen’s own way was to make sure of the very things that absorbed her attention in her own life. No one was closer to her than her older sister, Cassandra, with whom she shared a room until the end of her life. Jane Austen’s life may have seemed uneventful compared to her family members. But her genius began with the recognition that such lives as hers were very eventful indeed– that every life is eventful, if only you know how to look at it. She did not think that her existence was quiet or trivial or boring; she thought it was delightful and enthralling, and she wanted us to see that too. She understood that what fills our days, should fill our hearts; and what fills our hearts, should fill our novels.

Initially, Deresiewicz was an arrogant graduate student, and was shocked that he would be studying Austen's work. But when he read Emma for a class, something unexpected happened. As he viewed the world through Austen's generous eyes, he was amazed to discover that the people in his life began to develop the depth and richness of literary characters -- and that his own life had suddenly been fascinated with her novel. Austen's devotion to the everyday, and her faith in ordinary lives, changed him in ways that he could never have imagined. Also his relationships with others and his family improved.
Profile Image for Eustacia Tan.
Author 15 books260 followers
January 21, 2020
I've always known Jane Austen had lots to teach. And this book sets it out very clearly. Not only is Austen a master of the literary form, she also has very interesting things to teach us about life.

A Jane Austen education takes a look at Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility and how they impacted the author's life. And since he was doing a PhD in literature, Jane Austen is one of the authors that he writes about in his dissertation. It's not one of those fluffy "power of friendships" type of Jane Austen education - this book uses literary analysis to show us how Jane Austen provoked a specific reaction in us and how she wanted us to learn from that.

Surprisingly, the book gave me a new perspective on several books, especially Mansfield Park. I never though of how Jane Austen used the contrast of Fanny and Mary to make us think about which is more important - charm or a good heart. I've always liked Fanny (hence my displeasure at re-writes that cast Mary as the good, main character), so it's something I never considered. Another contrast that I never considered before would be Marianne and Elinor and their respective romances.

Plus, the impact that Jane Austen had on the author was really meaningful. It wasn't a drastic "changed my life 180 degrees" thing, rather, she taught him how to see what was wrong, and gave him ideas on how to improve his life.

I'm actually not quite sure if this book is a literary analysis or a semi-autobiography of how Jane Austen impacted one person's life. What I do know is this - I would really like to read the author's dissertation, it sounds really interesting!

This review was first posted to Inside the mind of a Bibliophile
Profile Image for Gabriela.
138 reviews110 followers
February 7, 2017
This is a good read for any fan of Jane Austen who has read all her books (because if you haven't this one is full of spoilers). Each chapter is focused on a different book and through them the author William Deresiewicz tells you what each book taught him. Being that said, the chapters are:
- Emma: "everyday matters"
- Pride and Prejudice: "growing up"
- Northanger Abbey: "learning to learn"
- Mansfield Park: "being good"
- Persuasion: "true friends"
- Sense and Sensibility: "falling in love"
It was interesting to read this because it was written by a man. William Deresiewicz admits during the first chapter, that he considered Jane Austen's book as something meant for women, something "ridiculous and a symbol of dullness and narrowness, a bunch of silly romantic fairy tales". He had to read "Emma" for a class in college and was completely against it but... he ended up falling with the story, and thats pretty much how he started to read each book.

The book is part memoir, part class. You get to see the author tell his life story through the books, by telling you how each book influenced what was going on in his life at the moment he picked them up. Each chapter is full of little "facts" here and there, I was surprised by so many of them, I didn't know for example that Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had a rivalry thing! And all this kind of things made the read of this book very enjoyable.

I won't lie... the book did get boring at some points, the author got repetitive sometimes, but at the end I think it did accomplish its goal, which was telling all the lessons that Jane Austen left him. 3.5 stars for this one.
Profile Image for Lavinia.
748 reviews837 followers
August 29, 2014
For some it might be just another Jane Austen-related book, for me it was equally delightful and useful. Useful, as in: Look! There's more Jane Austen trivia I had no idea about. Far from being a Janeite or an Austenite, or how on earth they call themselves (I've only read Pride and Prejudice and loved it, just like anyone else, and Emma, which I barely tolerated), I'm not to judge her by the books, rather by the films, I guess I've seen them all but Northanger Abbey. Shameful, I know. However, I took it upon myself to find the perfect male character in Austen's novels - I already have a favourite, but really, how can you judge a book by its movie, knowing they add all the glam to the characters and situations? So, I owe her myself 4 books. And if I took this decision (God knows if I'll actually keep my promise!) it's only the author's fault, since he wrote in such a manner that makes you want at least watch the films again if not read the books.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,719 followers
October 9, 2012
This is a pleasant memoir about a graduate student who reads Jane Austen's novels and sees connections between his own behavior and the behavior of the characters. My favorite chapters were about Mansfield Park and Persuasion. William noticed that some people in his social circle in New York were as shallow and selfish as the Crawfords in Mansfield Park, and he decided to place more emphasis on true friendship and on finding ways of being useful to others.

Austen fans will appreciate the various lessons William applies to his own life, and he gives such good summaries of each novel that even readers who don't remember all the plot points could enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Danielle.
548 reviews35 followers
September 30, 2020
This is a welcome diversion from my usual genres.I found this thought provoking and reflective. The author takes you through Jane Austen's 6 novels and proves the point or purpose in her writing that novel and talks about how each book touched his life. It's philosophy.

There was nothing earth shattering here but if you're a Jane Austen fan you would probably enjoy this.
Profile Image for Valeriya Duka.
16 reviews7 followers
April 8, 2021
Приятно читать книгу, автор которой так же сильно и искренне любит Остин. Впечатление, буд-то обсуждаешь с другом старые и дорогие сердцу книги
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
974 reviews226 followers
February 8, 2015
Professor Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep affected me so strongly, I just had to follow up with his book on Jane Austen. It has none of the polemics of Excellent Sheep; it’s just a memoir of his grad school years and how he went from a Jane Austen hater to a fan. His dissertation covered all six books, so presumably, this book contains all the personal reactions that didn’t fit into his academic research. The book circulates between summaries of the novels and the life lessons he learned for them, with a little biographical background on Austen thrown in. In that sense, it’s very similar to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

The book opens with Emma, which was a great choice since it’s Austen’s funniest work. The second chapter is about Pride and Prejudice, far and away her most popular. After that pleasurable romp, it was easy to transition into Northanger Abbey, which is my least favorite of Austen’s novels. Surprisingly, though, it turned out to be my favorite chapter. The other chapters explored the themes of love, friendship, and character, which are all important issues, but because Henry Tilney is so much wiser than Catherine Morland, and because she is so young and naïve, this is where Professor Dersiewicz got to explain how he evolved as a teacher. His advising professor was a major figure in this chapter, and like Professor Dersiewicz, I loved his approach to literature: experiential, not “academic.” That’s precisely the tone the memoir was written in. It’s educational and you’ll learn from it, not because it analyzes how Austen’s work fits in with some theory or other, but because it shows how one man related Austen’s themes and character insights into his own life.
Profile Image for Becca.
644 reviews22 followers
March 17, 2017
Pfft. I want to give him paper cuts with his own book then make him bathe in lemon juice. The only analysis I even remotely agreed with was of Mansfield Park, but he lost my respect early on when he claimed that reading Jane Austen helped him understand women better. Women. How about understanding HUMAN BEINGS, Billy? Just because her protagonists are women means everything contained therein is a reflection on the female sex? All the eye rolls. I have so many words for William Deresiewicz, but as none of them are kind or helpful in a book review, I'll keep them to myself.

My biggest problem with his various analyses is that he seems to think Austen was a moralistic writer who dealt in "shoulds," that you can read her work as a kind of fable and glean an overall understanding of how to make wise choices in love. At best, any such analysis would end with, "What is appropriate for one might not be appropriate for another," or "Analyze your passions." Anything beyond this and you begin to have mounting evidence to the contrary. We could easily conclude the Anne Elliot could have run off with Wentworth in her youth in a flurry of passion, because Anne Elliot is the sort of insightful person who reads people exceptionally well. It is equally inappropriate in Marianne Dashwood and leads to the latter's heartbreak. While Elizabeth Bennet ought to have given Darcy the benefit of the doubt, Emma should not have done the same for Frank Churchill.

Mostly, I think I was annoyed because he circumvented the themes I most like hearing discussed in the novels (Mansfield Park being the exception; spot on, there). To look at friendship in Persuasion is certainly valid--but to choose to focus on the cool comfort of friendship in Austen's most passionate and disciplined work is rather like going to an art museum and writing an essay on the quality of the light. No one's going to disagree with you, and it may be a relevant observation, but it's so not the point.

The most flagrant offense, though, is ending the book with a line of Charlotte Bronte's. You don't spend 250 pages talking about how Austen poked fun at the fantastical elements and passionate whims of gothic novels and literally end your book with the most famous words from Jane Eyre. It subverts the credibility of everything that came before it.

Boo. Hiss.
Profile Image for Mary Simonsen.
Author 46 books178 followers
March 27, 2015
Although I enjoy most of what Jane Austen wrote, I never liked Mansfield Park. I found Fanny Price insufferable, and Edmund Bertram a bit of a bore. As for the other characters, with the possible exception of Mary Crawford, I didn’t like them enough to care about them. For me, personally, the novel was a dud, but that was before I read William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love and Friendship.

According to Deresiewicz, Austen had something to teach us in Mansfield Park: a form of usefulness. After Edmund encounters ten-year-old Fanny Price, who was crying after being separated from her family and brought to Mansfield Park, he said: “Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters.”

Did Edmund really care about [Fanny’s] brothers and sisters? Probably not. "But he cared about her, and she cared about them, and that was enough for him… Austen was not a novelist for nothing: she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else’s stories—entering into their feelings, validating their experiences—is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness." (p. 161)

Deresiewicz was working on his master’s degree when he was “forced” to read Emma, and it changed his life. He soon found himself immersed in all of Austen’s works, and he had something to take away from each of them. Although I do not agree with all of his conclusions, some of his insights were so eye-opening that I found myself saying out loud: “I never thought of it in that way. I might actually have reasons to like Emma.”

After finishing the book, I realized that Deresiewicz had accomplished something I thought impossible: I found that I liked Edmund Bertram a little more and disliked Fanny Price a little less, and I was interested in what made the Bertrams and the Crawfords tick. In fact, I looked at the novel so differently that I might just have to give it another try.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,573 reviews43 followers
August 27, 2022
This is so much better than I thought it would be. The premise is gimmicky but somehow it works. I was worried it would end up being a regular memoir with some Jane Austen padding to entice readers. Instead, he focuses on the books and on Austen himself, using examples from his life to tie in with the novels themes.

I think he could convince an Austen hater to appreciate her, but of course, someone who hates Austen would not be reading this book in the first place.

A few quotes from the book that stood out for me:

It's good to be in touch with your feelings but it's even better if you also think about them.

The job of a teacher is neither to affirm your students notions nor to fill them with your own. The job is to free them from both.

Answers are easy. You can go out to the street and any fool will give you answers. The trick is to ask the right question.

Our stories are what make up human, and listening to someone else's stories - entering into their feelings, validating their experiences - is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity.

We live in a world where money and status and celebrity are cherished too highly. We're all susceptible to the temptation to value people for things like success and glamour, to value ourselves for them and to sacrifice what is really important in order to get them.
Profile Image for Mary Ronan Drew.
872 reviews101 followers
August 2, 2011
You do need to be a Jane Austen fan to appreciate William Deresiewicz' new book, but if you are a Janeite it is a treasure. The author was studying English literature when he began reading Austen novels and with the help of a particularly skillful professor he began to appreciate her work in a new way.

From the Amazon.com review: A self-styled intellectual rebel dedicated to writers such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, Deresiewicz never thought Austen's novels would have anything to offer him. But when he was assigned to read Emma as a graduate student at Columbia, something extraordinary happened. Austen's devotion to the everyday, and her belief in the value of ordinary lives, ignited something in Deresiewicz. He began viewing the world through Austen's eyes and treating those around him as generously as Austen treated her characters. Along the way, Deresiewicz was amazed to discover that the people in his life developed the depth and richness of literary characters-that his own life had suddenly acquired all the fascination of a novel. His real education had finally begun.

I zipped through the book in no time and will read it again soon.

2011 No 118
Profile Image for Lekeshua.
254 reviews2 followers
July 8, 2016
Love how William Deresiewicz opened himself to receive Jane Austen teachings. He exposed himself in order to help everyone see that Jane Austen isn't just chic lit. Jane Austen is for everyone, we most open ourselves to her and listen.
Profile Image for Sara.
564 reviews177 followers
June 29, 2016
Full review to come at www.plumfieldandpaideia.com shortly.

Much of it was brilliant, insightful, and very intriguing.

Sadly, however, the author used some distasteful language in several places and it is unfortunate that he is still very much a modernist in his morals.
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