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.
myself. “Billy,” she explained with the weary patience with which you might address a difficult child, “she’s already heard them all.” Basically, I had no insight into myself or anyone else. My romantic life, not surprisingly, had never been particularly happy. I was stuck at the time in a relationship that should have ended long before. We had jumped each other one night the previous summer, and though we’d been together for over a year, we had little in common and had never much progressed
and taller, and hairier. But the other part—what about that? We come into the world as a tiny bundle of impulse and ignorance—how do we ever become fit for human company, let alone capable of love? This, I discovered that summer, was what Jane Austen’s novels were about. Her heroines were sixteen or nineteen or twenty (people married young in those days, especially women). We followed them for a few weeks, or a few months, or a year. They started out in one place, and gradually—or sometimes,
Jersey.) Austen herself must have loved those books, in a perverse, guilty-pleasure sort of way. She could never have lampooned them as brilliantly as she did if she hadn’t been reading them by the bucketful—and you don’t keep reading what you simply despise. But the joke on Catherine was that she believed what she read. Like Isabella’s artificial behavior, the extravagant stories of wicked noblemen and haunted castles that the two girls read together—and that Catherine, at least, was innocent
toys—her deepest lessons about the dangers of power and luxury had to do with how such people hurt themselves. It’s no fun to have friends who constantly want you to entertain them, but it’s far worse if you’re the one who constantly needs to be entertained. The Crawfords’ mobility, which looked so much at first like energy—Mary galloping about the countryside, Henry dashing about the country—was little more, I finally saw, than restless discontent. Mary was moping one showery day at the
introduced me to the high-society crowd, who didn’t get her at all. And she became acquainted with my best friend, who really did know me better than I knew myself, because she welcomed her as the partner I had always been searching for. That first weekend she came to Brooklyn, the visit that sealed our fate, she brought along a book, just in case there was some downtime. She knew I was a graduate student by that point, but she had no idea what I studied or whom I was writing my dissertation