I loved the premise: Jane Austen taught this young male “everything [he] know[s] about everything that matters” (1). He had not wanted to read her. At first, in fact, he was frustrated to have to read Emma (for a course at Columbia—good work, CU), and his narration of his reactions at the time to some of the seeming inanity—particularly that of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates—is hilarious for someone who knows and loves this text. We can see his struggle; he doesn’t yet understand why this is important, or that a normal person would be laughing.
This text is both a psychological analysis of a smart 20-something man who needs to learn he’s not so smart after all and the journey that changed him. Packed with smart-people allusions, the book engages the reader curious about this individual man’s life—then and now—and about the broader implications for all of humanity.
His conclusion with respect to the chattiness in Emma is that all those speeches are not simply there for us to laugh—the seemingly mundane discussion of day-to-day activities is actually what comprises “the fabric of our years” (13). Deresiewicz’s analysis of the meaning of Emma made me think about it differently, for instance the idea that Miss Bates, through her happiness in the face of negative circumstances, lives “the novel’s highest lesson of all” (30). Austen, he begins to realize, “had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages” (15). She embraced the little details of life, and “it didn’t matter how small the frame was, because it contained a whole world” (17).
Deresiewicz also comments on the writers he had previously admired, including many of the modernists, here, Nabokov and Eliot, “every line of whose work strutted its contempt for ordinary people” (34). Austen, by contrast, deals with regular people’s lives, and her “characters came to seem so vivid, so meaningful, because she put them down on the page exactly the way she placed her words: without condescension, without apology, but with a masterful talent for arrangement” (17). He tackles Romanticism more directly when he reflects on Pride and Prejudice. From it, he takes the idea that “head and heart can disagree, and . . . when they do, the head should win” (66). This philosophy, directly addressed by Sense and Sensibility, is the opposite of Romanticism, which prioritizes individual human emotion and which, Deresiewicz says, “gave rise to almost all the great art of the last two centuries” (67). His discussion of the Bronte versus Austen camps in grad school completely validated the dichotomy I have established with my students. They’re free to read that “immature and overwrought” Jane Eyre if they so choose, but I’ll be assigning a work of cool irony (70-71). Ultimately, Deresiewicz concludes that Austen’s works teach that “it is good to be in touch with your feelings, but it is even better if you also think about them” (98).
We really go on a journey with this young man, as he physically moves to a place of his own, as he renegotiates his father-son relationship, as he exits and enters romantic relationships, and as he decides how he wants to live. The catalyzing moment for his reflection is finally understanding Emma, but the journey takes him through all six. There are some especially insightful moments, including: reacting to P and P, “it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it” (60); “it takes courage . . . to admit your mistakes, and even more courage to remember them” (64); adolescence is about “learning to trust” oneself,” and adulthood is about “learn[ing] to doubt” oneself (68); and “learning to read . . . means learning to live” (103).
Now not everything is perfect about this text. It seemed strange to me that a guy with an advanced degree in English uses the past tense to discuss characters in novels. Do they not teach that at Columbia? There were some scattered grammar annoyances—a preposition at the end of a sentence here or there, and a description of Elizabeth and Catherine being charming “unconsciously” (134). For the most part, however, I felt I was in the hands of someone who had masterfully understood the texts and his own life. He links them beautifully, particularly in the Mansfield Park chapter in which he comes to understand the New York socialites to whom he had been drawn much as readers, and certainly Edmund and his sisters, are to the the Crawfords.
Sometimes, the sheer genius of the ideas—both Austen’s and his own—became overwhelming. One of his best on Austen: The “sweetest form of usefulness” is to listen to someone else’s stories, thereby “acknowledging their humanity” (161). One of his personal best: novels “are training grounds for responding to the world, imaginative sanctuaries in which to hone and test our ethical judgments and choices” (99). Deresiewicz also taught me some “little” things: Northanger would have been the equivalent of something like New Jersey” (86). In the “Learning to Learn” chapter, in which, actually, the author describes how he learned to teach, he draws multiple parallels between Jane Austen and Catherine Morland (which made me feel much better about being named CM in the Facebook quiz “which Austen heroine are you?”).
In fact, he made several interesting observations about being a truly good teacher. He notices that the professor who inspired him most “genuinely wanted to hear what [students] had to say” and tried to turn students into “better versions of themselves” (91). I didn’t expect to learn so much about my own task, but “the job of a teacher . . .is neither to affirm your students’ notions nor to fill them with your own. The job is to free them from both” (103).
The focus of the work, however, and the area in which Deresiewicz makes some of his most profound statements, is love—how to find it, how to be ready for it, and what to do with it once you have it. These concepts apply to friendships (“We make our friends our family, but we also make our family—or some of them—our friends” 184), and Austen helps the writer be a better friend to his friends and even to help one friend get sober (196). Like an Austen novel, this story builds up to the protagonist enjoying a real love match, but it is a longer, more uncertain journey for him than it is for most of our heroines and their heroes. I laughed a lot during his “I was spared no indignity” paragraph about dating (204). The dating, in conjunction with really thinking about Austen’s messages, helps him understand that “love is not something that happens TO you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something you have to prepare yourself for” (220). The character of one’s lover “matters not only because you’re going to have to live with it, but [also] because it’s going to shape the person you become” (237). Thus, falling in love does not happen in a moment, Elinor’s method is preferable to Marianne’s, and “in Austen’s vision,” you cannot know the moment you fell; “you only discover you already have” (221-22). He understands now why Austen “always teasingly withheld” the actual declaration of love: “it was too private; it was none of our business. And that was the most romantic thing of all” (255).
In addressing the subject, Deresiewicz concludes that though Austen never married, “she did have children . . . Their names are Emma and Elizabeth and Catherine, Anne and Fanny and Elinor and Marianne. Their names are Henry and Edward and Wentworth and Willoughby, Mr. Collins and Miss Bates and Mr. Darcy. They were not long-lived, they are ageless” (246). Though Austen might have married, if she had, “we would not have been who we are, and she would not have been Jane Austen” (246).
It is Austen who sometimes offers lessons that are difficult for this young male reader to accept. “Of all of Austen’s beliefs about love, the hardest one [for Deresiewicz] to accept was this: not everyone is capable of it” for, to be capable of love, one must “possess a loving heart” (238-39). If one does, and if one is willing and able, not to remain “forever young” but to become “an adult,” then true love is possible (236). The end is perfect :-). Wait for it. Once you come to know this protagonist, the end can’t help but fulfill your hopes for him, and perhaps, for any intelligent man who gives—or is forced to give—Jane Austen a try.