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A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz

2011/11/03

This book starts out with one of the oddest openers for a book about Jane Austen — “I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever” (1). The words themselves are not terribly surprising, but the fact that a man wrote them is. And indeed, in the following pages, Deresiewicz himself confesses to an initial bias against Austen, eschewing her as a writer of “silly romantic fairy tales,” and grudgingly reading “Emma” for a class while pursuing a graduate degree in English. He finds the story and its characters dull and boring, then discovers to his surprise that the narrator, the title character, agrees with his assessment of her situation. Examining some of his own preconceived ideas of Austen’s works, he compares it to numerous historical and modern critiques of her writing. Deresiewicz continues chronologically through his graduate student years, aligning the stories of his life with episodes and lessons from Austen’s works, each of the major six novels.

It is rather unusual to see a man writing about his love of Austen’s works, but that is no reason to shun this particular work. Both a memoir and an exploration of fiction, I found this to be pleasant and easy to read; certainly lighter than the previously reviewed memoir involving Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works. Deresiewicz does try a little too hard to connect real life to fiction in some chapters, drawing out some conclusions which are merely conjectures. Still, worth a read, if nothing more than for the aforementioned oddity of a man delving so deeply and personally into Austenian fiction.

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