William Deresiewicz tells of reading Jane Austen
London: There`s nothing quite like meeting another admirer of your favourite author, finding in that person a similar vigour for the close reading of that author`s works, and sharing the memories you have of what it was like when you first encountered them.
Such is the experience for me of reading William Deresiewicz`s ‘A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.’ I finished the book with two strong impulses: One, to immediately reread everything Jane Austen wrote, with Deresiewicz`s book at my side, and two, to invite Deresiewicz — a former Yale University English professor and now a professional literary critic — over for more Austen talk.
Each chapter of his book takes on one of Austen`s novels and situates them contextually within various stages of his progression toward adulthood, intertwining his story with hers. He writes with wit, charm and candour, and the result is simply delightful.
It starts with Deresiewicz as a 26-year-old self-styled arrogant rebel walking around "in a cloud of angry sarcasm." And then he`s forced to read "Emma" for a graduate school seminar and — I say this without a trace of hyperbole — his entire view of the world starts to change. Suddenly a book that doesn`t appear to be about anything important turns into a book about the only things in life that do matter — the small, everyday occurrences that shape us.
Likewise, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ becomes a story about growing up and learning the necessity of tempering our feelings with reason, and of learning from our mistakes. The wealthy, breezy Crawfords of ‘Mansfield Park’ are likened to Manhattan`s social elite whom Deresiewicz found himself amid, with both groups ultimately displaying a cripplingly narrow mindset fuelled by an utter lack of curiosity.
‘Persuasion’ is a story foremost about friendship, which Deresiewicz relates to the modern difficulty of forging friendships in adulthood, once everyone`s out of school and starting to couple off. The point made each time is nothing new, certainly not to Austen devotees, though it always bears repeating: her work remains ever relevant, to everyone.
Deresiewicz also offers a refreshingly clear cultural and historical reading of each novel, and the combination of the scholarly and the personal provides entirely new ways of looking at novels that I thought I already thoroughly knew. This is how "literary memoir" should be defined — not as a fake autobiography, but as a personal account of reading books that matter.