Julie Bestry's Reviews > A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz
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Sep 04, 2011

liked it

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.
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