Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book Talk: A Jane Austen Education

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A Jane Austen Education - How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz:

I just finished reading this 2011 book, and "Reader, I liked it." :O)  It didn't always get good reviews, but some of the few I read were complaining about the very things I thought the author explained and wrote very well. In fact, this book I checked out from the library by chance (don't you love that about libraries?) is worth another read to me, perhaps even worth owning it someday.

Deresiewicz is intelligent, there's no denying that. But rather than being "arrogant," I felt he was forthcoming and self-deprecating. Rather than not telling his own story well, I thought it was done very well, and I enjoyed his memoir sections almost as much as the Austen summaries. 

So if you're an Austen fan, you might give it a go and see what you think. But I think it has to be read carefully, and I suspect many of the comments were from readers who just skimmed the book or else how could they miss what was so clearly there? 

Chapter Titles: 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 End of the Story. All but the last are very long chapters, but then they'd have to be! (And for the most part, the author only touches on the aspects of each novel that particularly taught him something meaningful he could apply in his own life.)

I'm taking the liberty of sharing a few quotes about the books Emma and Mansfield Park, below:

Writing about Austen's characters in Mansfield Park:  

So poor was Mary in any kind of inner resources, Austen was telling us, any ability to dwell in her own mind - to read, to draw, or simply to sit still and think - that her spirits couldn't survive a few hours alone indoors. Perpetual amusement, the privilege of the idle rich, leads only, it seems, to the perpetual threat of boredom. Being able to get whatever you want, Austen was showing me, leaves you awfully unhappy when you cannot get what you want.

Fanny, I realized, was not just different from the privileged people around her; she was their exact opposite. They had everything and wanted more; she had little and was willing to make do with less. Instead of responding to adversity with petulance and spite, she handled it with fortitude, resilience, and, when necessary, resignation.

But the novel's most important word of all was "useful." ... Because Fanny had to work hard, set aside her feelings, and sacrifice herself for others - to be, in a word, useful - only she possessed the moral strength to rise to the challenge when circumstances arrived ...

Writing about Emma:

... Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don't accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, "trivial," everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about.

Emma was always looking in the wrong direction ... While she plotted her schemes and dreamed her dreams, her "daily happiness" was right there in front of her, in "affairs, arrangements, perplexities, and pleasures" - the hourly ordinary, in all its granular specificity. The novel had a name for this gossipy texture of daily life, a word I stumbled upon again and again. "Many little particulars"; "I am impatient for a thousand particulars"; "She will give you all the minute particulars." Not just particulars, but "little" particulars ... Life is lived at the level of the little. 

Of course, the terms "affairs" and "making love" (just throwing that one in) did not have (solely, if at all) the same connotation in Austen's day as they do now.

Are you a Jane Austen fan?

Enjoying a beautiful weekend, and hope you are, too!
*Based on the famous quote from Jane Eyre (not an Austen book): "Reader, I married him." Dereciewicz also plays with the quote. Also, I have no connection to the author or publisher whatsoever, and have not received compensation or a book for this brief review.


  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I have read most of Jane Austen's books, but it has been a long time. I seem to see the movie versions much more often. I should get into the books again and find those phrases like "many little particulars".

    Dianne L

    1. Hi Dianne, and thank you for the comments you take time to leave. I appreciate it! I also took many years to read all of Austen's books. I want to watch the movies again, too, especially the A&E versions. And then I want to reread her books, but it will probably take me a long time again. Blessings, Bess

  2. Wonderful! A new Austen book to look for. Love them! Thanks for visiting!

  3. I have to shamefully admit I have never read any of Jane Austen's books and am not sure why because so many of my beloved friends and family have. I do think that all the quotes in your post speak strongly of just why her books seem timely many years after she wrote them and also caught my interest enough to decide to check some of her books out of the library. Thank-you !

  4. Yes, I'm a Jane Austen fan and introduced my growing daughters to her characters. I do think her novels, however, tend to take a while to get into. After several chapters I'm on a roll - yet moving slowly and steadily. Seeing the films in the 1990s helped me visualize settings and characters for when I later read some of the novels. The friendships, family bonds, polite manners, and underlining morals, endear the stories to me. I like Eleanor of Sense and Sensibility, Anne of Persuasion, Jane of Pride and Prejudice. I appreciate authors who have a sense of humor and Jane provides a few quiet giggles as the pages turn.


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