This post starts out as a review of the book A Jane Austen Education and meanders its way into a post honoring the indescribably wonderful woman born December 16th, 1775.
My Thoughts on A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz
I was at first very excited by the premise of this book. Over the summer and fall I've immersed myself in Jane Austen's works and analyses of them. I've come to appreciate Austen's moral judgments as so subtle and strong that they can still help to guide mine today.
I also appreciate seeing a male author loudly raising his voice in praise of the authoress who, to the misinformed mind or the tragically dull elf, is seen as the “grandmother of romance fiction.” (JA Education p 223) Of course Austen has been praised by countless men, but perhaps one more formerly-derisive man's conversion, after the “score of sappy movies and hundred sentimental sequels” [Ibid] will help detractors re-examine their prejudices.
As a memoir, this book will inevitably be accused of smugness. The author's romantic life (or rather unromantic dating and sex-life) and inability to find a permanent partner costs him much anxiety and seems to be the “plot” to which we return at some point in each chapter. (And, yes, I know this is exactly what many people think Austen and other 19th century female authors are all about, but... I don't see enough irony in this book's approach to "the marriage plot".)
Frankly, the Finally-I-Arrived whiff didn't bother me all that much. Certainly, an Austen novel would delineate character better and teach lessons less tritely, but not even Yale professors like Deresiewicz should be expected to compete with Austen.
What ended up bothering me more was the fact that with “modern morals” Deresiewicz ended up looking more like Austen's cads than heroes. And for me, with my conservative Christian upbringing, contemporary morals just can't reconcile with the strength and subtlety of Austen's probity.
For example, Deresiewicz seemed proud of acting as Austen had taught him when he broke off a friendship with an alcoholic friend, after drinking with him and allowing him to drive home in an impaired state.
Dreesiewicz is also open about his many sexual, but intellectually unequal, relationships, which brought to mind... Mr. Eliot in Persuasion!
I was disturbed by the premise of the statement: “How [Austen's] ideas about sex might have changed in a world of reliable birth control, no-fault divorce, and women's economic independence we cannot say. It is certainly by no means clear that she would have denounced the moral standards of today.”
This is a difficult statement to navigate because it's impossible to know what Austen would be like if she grew up in today's moral climate. Personally, I believe that Austen's moral vision was based upon Christianity. In Mansfield Park (in which Edmund gives a speech on religion as the basis of morality) Mary Crawford takes the stance that Deresiewicz seems to believe Austen's: Promiscuity is bad because it is frowned upon by society and therefore jeopardizes one's social standing and happiness. Edmund is shocked by this view, because the problem here is really about the violation of unchangeable principles, not a mere departure from prudence.
(Of course, while believing that modern sexual morals are irreconcilable with Austen's moral vision, I'm aware that Austen herself was no prude, even including a pun about homosexuality in Mansfield Park. Yes, Austen, like Donne, or even Charlotte Bronte, is an author whose attitudes towards sexuality and religion often seem paradoxical and ironic.)
Despite its problems as a memoir, this book contains some excellent insights into Jane Austen's wit and wisdom. It made me love Austen still more, so yes, I would recommend it to the avid Janeite. However, for a subtle examination of Jane Austen's moral philosophy, I'm still laying my hopes on eventually obtaining a copy of Sarah Emsely's Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.
Well, those were my thoughts on A Jane Austen Education before I read The Jane Austen Book Club. The latter is a charming book: witty, touching and brimming with the color and texture of modern life. But it's the first sentence of the book that reminded me that maybe I needed to be a little less severe in the examination of others' understanding, because "seldom can it happen that something is not a little... mistaken.”.
Karen Joy Fowler's first sentence reminded me that "each of us has a private Austen."
So, who is my private Jane Austen? Well, it's probably clear that she's a Christian. But she's also a woman born with a biting wit that can be devastating and frightening. She's the Augustan rationalist who wrote of the transforming power of love. She's a woman who was very aware of the issues of her time, yet wrote books that teach us about navigating our own time.
Actually, I probably don't fully know “my” Jane Austen yet. This year was my year of becoming a (fanatical) Janeite; I'd fallen in love with Austen four years ago, the summer I was fourteen, but I learned to love Austen this year. I'd already read all the novels (some repeatedly) and could explain why Austen really isn't romantic in the traditional sense, and how she differentiates between static, growing and degenerating characters. But this year I reread five of the novels and read the unfinished works and juvenilia for the first time. And then I devoured scores upon scores of JASNA essays. Over the summer I've lived and breathed Austen and the inevitable result is that I think her so like perfection that I can call her by no other name.
My favorite chapter of A JA Education is the Northanger Abbey one in which Deresiewicz points to Henry and Catherine's discussion of how she has “learned to love a hyacinth.” “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing,” Henry says. (Read some of the chapter here: http://chronicle.com/article/A-Jane-Austen-Education/127269/ )
I don't fully know “my” Jane Austen yet, because the habit of learning to love her is one that will continue to educate and delight me for the rest of my life.
In honor of 236 years of perfection, Jane Austen repeats herslef: “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.”