Review by Kathleen A. Flynn
Part of the appeal of Jane Austen is that people read her work with very different kinds of pleasure, according to their level of understanding and what they seek. Some love the satisfaction of the smooth working-out of the love stories; others enjoy the wit and irony; some savor the mental journey to a world that seems more placid and stable, more refined and stately, than our own. And a few, like William Deresiewicz, a noted literary critic, find a guide to life. The premise of A Jane Austen Education is that reading the novels of Jane Austen taught him to be a better – kinder, wiser – person and was a vital part of his growing up.
Education takes us through the six novels and about seven years of Mr. Deresiewicz’s life, from age 26 to 33, tracing his progress from self-important graduate student, book-smart but incapable of genuine intimacy or independent life, to the moment he finally finds the right woman, having gained the insight that made real love possible.
Each Austen novel has its own chapter; each is presented as a way station on the writer’s journey to maturity. “Emma” looks at learning to see the importance of everyday, seemingly mundane matters. “Pride and Prejudice” focuses on the challenge of learning from one’s mistakes to see reality clearly, unblinded by emotion or self-interest. “Northanger Abbey” is about learning how to learn. “Mansfield Park” examines how to distinguish what is glamorous and appealing from what is morally right. “Persuasion” addresses friendship, and the challenge of finding and keeping true friends as one moves past early adulthood. “Sense and Sensibility” explores real love versus the false romantic version of it that popular culture bombards us with.