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Yale Professor talks about "a Jane Austen Education" in his recent memoirs

By Jonathan Farrell
Posted Nov 2, 2011 in World
I happened to see a new book at the local library here in San Francisco by an associate English Professor from Yale University, entitled "A Jane Austen Education." At first I thought "oh that's nice more talk about etiquette and manners." But when I saw that it was written by a contemporary man, it intrigued me.
Certainly, Jane Austen's writings have appealed to women for years. But for a man to make note of some of the profound lessons about "Love, Friendship and the Things that really matter," it got me wondering, did I miss something?
Now like many people, I did take in the surge of Jane Austen movies that appeared in the 1990's staring Emma Thompson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette and a then unknown Colin Firth. Those movies which appeared at the cinema and on PBS television charmed me a bit and like all good drama kept my attention for most of the story.
Yet after seeing the PBS version of "Persuasion" (which, yes it was very well done, etc.) I was not as charmed. I had my fill of it. Only in the sense that, "I got it!" Austen's obsession it seemed to me from what I gathered from the script of those novels was that a woman must marry well and have proper connections and lead a decent life or her days on earth will be filled with misery.
Yet, after reading William Deresiewicz' memoir I can see why Austen wrote with such passion about matrimonial affairs and domestic situations. Women in Austen's time were limited in what they could do or express in the greater society.
Interestingly, just recently in the news, the one issue Austen reiterates most in her novels is the need for the woman to marry well in order to save her family as an inheritance went only to a male heir.
This to me seemed most prominent, among other issues. Yet, when looking at the history of women in 18th and 19th Century England, there was very little women could do on their own outside the home. If they had no dowry or suitor to marry then the future could be dim.
Another series of novels that gives us an insight into women of the time-period is of course the Bronte sisters. "Jane Eyre" is filled with the backdrop of a limited number of life-choices for a woman. Yet, like Austen, Bronte's heroine Jane Eyre is determined to be an independent soul. The value of friendship and loyalty is also highlighted in the famous novel which like Austen's work has been made into a movie many times.
It is comforting to read Deresiewicz' thoughts, especially in these economic recession times. Because much of what he reflects upon through Austen's works are things that money can not buy.
Yes, it is true Austen wanted her leading characters to marry well, but to marry for love, too, if that was possible. Some anthropologists note that the idea of marrying for love and marrying whom one chooses is a relatively new concept in the overall history of the world.
The book review from the Los Angeles Times by Carolyn Kellogg said that Deresiewicz "falls short" and "lacks a deep connection to (himself)." Yet, what I sense is that Deresiewicz views Austen's ideas from a man's perspective and Kellogg sees it from a woman's point of view.
There will always be subtle aspects that a woman sees more so than a man. And, on certain subjects in certain ways, a man will see things in a way that a woman does not.
Even if as Kellogg notes in her review that Deresiewicz is missing something, it is impressive, I think that a contemporary man would be inspired by Austen's work beyond its theatrical elements.
For me, even watching the best productions of Austen's work on film after about 30 minutes or so, I am ready to fall asleep. If Deresiewicz was inspired by Austen's work to be a better teacher, friend and overall good citizen, then that is wonderful.
The New York Times review was more favorable of Deresiewicz' efforts. As Miranda Seymour said, "He applies that comic narrative device to her six completed novels." And, Seymour points out that Deresiewicz explains the various reasons as to why contemporary readers, especially young teens would find Austen boring. (What they are) "going through was the rebel phase."
For me, it seems Deresiewicz did reach yet another audience for Austen (namely men of today), and that alone from his contemporary man perspective is an accomplishment.