Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Jane Austen Education

It's Christmas. So nice to have the music and the smells and the great movies on TV. I especially enjoy some of these:

They only come out at Christmas time. I always try to stock up, but I usually eat through my supply by February and then I'm left to suffer without Mint M&Ms for nearly 9 months. It's a tragedy, I know.

I'm also excited about all the Holiday baking I'll get to do. Our office Holiday party is Wednesday, and I'm planning to bring my famous Cranberry Bread - if you're good, I'll do a post on it and all of its glory. I also want to make some good Christmas cookies - maybe some of my mom's glorious Cream Cheese Flakes and maybe some old fashioned Sugar Cookies. Luckily, it's cold out, so giant sweaters and sweatshirts are totally acceptable.

Also, the holidays mean lots of reading under blankets (in theory), so maybe I should just get to talking about books. (Disclaimer: I read this book in September sometime. Don't judge. Or do, but take the below lessons into consideration.)

A Jane Austen Education

By: William Deresiewicz

I loved this book before I ever opened it. The rest of the title tells you everything you need to know: "How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter."

Of course you know I'm a big Jane Austen fan. Of course you can guess that I've read all of her novels at least once and a few of them have been read several times. And we know the message from The Jane Austen Book Club - using Jane's novels as a rulebook is not a bad way to fumble our way through life. Really, what WOULD Jane do?

But William Deresiewicz takes things a bit further than that simple mantra. The lessons he learned were (no spoilers here, because these things are written on the back of the book):

1. EMMA - Everyday events (especially the ones that seem mundane and meaningless) are the things that really matter in life.

2. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - You aren't perfect, but making mistakes is the only way to grow up and to find out who you really are.

3. NORTHANGER ABBEY - Stay awake; don't take things for granted. By opening yourself to new experiences, you can turn your life into an adventure that will never end.

4. MANSFIELD PARK - Being entertained is not the same thing as being happy. Perpetual amusement leads only to the perpetual threat of boredom.

5. PERSUASION - Be honest with your friends. Unconditional acceptance is not real friendship. A true friend points out your mistakes - even at the risk of losing your friendship.

6. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY - Love is about growing up, not staying young. A true lover is someone who is different from you and is willing to challenge you. It means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives.

So, why would you want to read the book, when I've just laid out all the lessons for you? Well, for one thing, the author spends a considerable amount of time with the text of each novel - analyzing the events, language and characters to draw his conclusions. It's scholarly and intellectual, but it's relatable because it's also a memoir. He tells us the story of his life as a student before, during and after the discovery of Jane's works - how he matured and grew up. I'm still working on the maturity thing, but I found myself relating to the different milestones in his life.

I will say that having read all the Jane Austen novels beforehand made this book a lot easier to read and understand. However, don't be afraid to pick this up if you have only read a couple of her novels, or even none. He explains some of the more important plot points and the relationships of the characters so that it would be easy for anyone to follow along. And it's extremely likely that reading his thoughts on the novels will make you want to read the ones you haven't yet read.

Reading his points on some of the novels, specifically Persuasion, made me want to go back and reread it. Persuasion has been one of my least favorite Jane Austen novels (I usually put it at 5 out of 6), but now I'm willing to go back and give it another chance. Conversely, even after his remarks, I am not ready to reread Emma (number 6 out of 6). I can appreciate the lessons he learned without going back to that one.

Overall, this was an interesting, entertaining and educational read - the perfect combination. I would definitely recommend this to any Jane fan, and to anyone who wonders if he could be a fan of Jane and her work.

Addition After the Fact:

I forgot to add in this fun little fact: Did you know that Rudyard Kipling wrote a book called "The Janeites" about Austen worship in the trenches of World War I? How crazy is that? Long before loving Jane Austen was mainstream (have you seen the millions of Jane Austen spin-off books?), people - ok not just ANY people, Rudyard Kipling for crying out loud! - were writing about the cult of Jane Austen love. This book is going right at the top of my list of books to read immediately.

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