Sunday, May 22, 2011

William Deresiewicz’ A Jane Austen Education : Not my cup of tea




BlogHer Book Club Reviewer

I’ve decided to a rest from the BlogHer book club, for a bit. At first it was kind of fun to get these books in the mail that I hadn’t heard about and therefore wouldn’t have chosen to read, but there’s just so much time for reading and I want to focus on my choices, my taste.

I wasn’t sure that the latest selection, William Deresiewicz’ A Jane Austen Education was the right book for me to review. Unlike most women of my generation who grew up on Victorian novels and majored in English, I’ve never been a fan of Jane Austen. I wondered if Deresiewicz could change my mind about Austen or at least convince me I should give her another chance. I grant that Austen is a talented writer and Deresiewicz an engaging one, but he has not convinced me to read Austen again.

While I’ll acknowledge her merits—-she has created two of the most memorable characters in English literature, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy—-I’ve usually found her tone somewhat smug and self-satisfied. And although she maintains some critical distance from her characters, most of the basic assumptions of her society are largely unquestioned.

I grant that in her understated way, Austen does convey awareness of gender injustice--the limited options for educated middle-class women is a central theme in Austen’s work. However, the British class system is largely unquestioned. True, there are unflattering portraits of aristocrats in Austen’s novels, but the miserable lives of so many impoverished people in 19th century Britain is just simply are outside her characters’ (and one assumes Austen’s own) conscious awareness.

What Austen condemns is callous rich people treating intelligent, educated middle class women like Austen with disrespect. Similarly, what Deresiewicz complains about is the way the glittering rich of New York City treat sensitive intellectuals like him with disrespect.

Deresiewicz divides the world into two camps: those who love Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and those who love the Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn’t imagine how you could stand to read anything as immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn’t believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. Our choices, of course, reflected our personalities. The Bronte people, we Austenites felt, tend to go in for self-dramatization and ideological extremes. We regarded ourselves as a cooler, more ironic bunch.


I’ve always distrusted these neat dichotomies: you love Dostoyevsky or you love Tolstoy; you love Walt Whitman or you love Emily Dickinson. etc., etc. I'm sure there are many readers who love both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. I’m clearly in the Jane Eyre camp and I don’t think it’s because I go in for “self-dramatization and ideological extremes” (at least I hope not) but for the emotional power of Jane Eyre—something I’ve always found lacking in Austen.

A Jane Austen Education wasn’t really about Jane Austen; it was really all about William Deresiewicz—interesting if you’re interested in Deresiewicz. He is an engaging writer but the connection between his life and Austen’s novels struck me as forced. The book might work for some confirmed Janeites—but not for me. And some Austen fans like Ashleigh Burrows found the book annoying.

The world Austen recreates, upper middle class life in provincial England with all its class prejudices and rigid gender roles, is a world thankfully long gone. I don’t think I want to spend my time in that world.

Just read an excellent article by Deresiewicz on the crisis in higher education in the Nation. He should stick to this kind of writing—he’s very good at it.

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