I’ve loved Jane Austen’s works since I first received “Emma” as a Christmas gift more than 20 years ago. But I only recently began reading essays and books on why we love her stories so much 200 years later, and what they mean to us on a personal level, beyond the basic lit class critiques.
I just finished reading “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter” by William Deresiewicz. The author begins the book by explaining how when he began graduate school, he had never even glanced at one of Austen’s novels because he felt above them, and above her style. But when he had to read “Emma” in one professor’s class on 19th century English literature, his view of Austen, and himself, started to change.
Deresiewicz reads and rereads all six of Austen’s novels over the course of a few years of graduate school and even incudes a chapter in his dissertation. But even more important than learning to like Jane Austen and all of her heroines, he learned more about life, love, and literature than he ever imagined.
Although I thought the author could be a bit rambling and repetitive, each of the six core lessons he pulled from Austen’s works resonated with me, and I found they applied in my own life. They are as follows:
Many think the plot of one of Austen’s most popular novels, frequently translated into film, is lacking. But the author latches on to Austen’s ultimate goal to get people to pay attention to the little stories and happenings of the people in our lives, no matter how small and ordinary they may be.
Deresiewicz says, “She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” Instead of just focusing on the big milestones and events and drama, Austen encourages us to remember the small stuff and to talk about it, perhaps again and again, if that is what brings us closer to our community.
“To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes,” says the author, and of Emma, her father, and their best friends. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always valued the little things like snuggling on the couch with coffee and my dogs, frequent chats by phone with my parents, or hearing the “minute particulars” of small town life from my family in Louisiana.
“Pride & Prejudice”
Perhaps the most read and beloved novel by Austen, made glamorous in film with dark-haired and beautiful Darcys and Elizabeth Bennets brooding over romantic English countryside landscapes.
More than just a comedy about mistaken first impressions (First Impressions was also the original title of the book) and a drama-filled family, “Pride & Prejudice” is about growing up and learning to “question our instincts and intuitions,” says Deresiewicz. I think my favorite line in this chapter was this one that combined life with the literary: “You aren’t born perfect…you are born with a whole novel’s worth of errors ahead of you.”
When we are young, we fixate on favorite movies and books and stories, wishing we had the lives of the heroes and heroines. What we often don’t realize until we go through major periods of emotional growth is that we are heroes and heroines in our own lives, our stories just waiting to unfold – and yes, they are full of failures and humiliations just as they are full of joy and surprises and achievement. The good and the bad, the rights and the wrongs, are all a part of growing up; we just need to embrace it.
Perhaps Austen’s most playful book, a parody of the gothic romances highly popular in her time. Her young heroine Catherine is just learning about herself, her world, and the people she wants in it. Here, the author points out that Austen encourages us to always be learning, and to consider new possibilities and new perspectives. “The wonderful thing about life,” he says, “if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.”
So for me, that may mean rereading a novel by Jane Austen and seeing all sorts of new hidden lessons in it, or putting aside my assumptions about the type of career I thought I would have, and exploring something new.
Many readers don’t enjoy this novel because of its somewhat somber mood and a poor, quiet, goody two-shoes heroine in Fanny Price. But I always put “Mansfield Park” in my top three Austen books myself, and perhaps it is because I valued the relationship between Fanny and her cousin Edmund. And Deresiewicz sees this, too:
“Usefulness—seeing what other people need and helping them get it—is support and compassion. Loving your friends and family is great, but what does it mean if you aren’t actually willing to do anything for them when they really need you, put yourself out in any way?”
In this day and age, technology has made it easier than ever for us to be in touch. And in fast-moving cities where networking and making lots of “friends” is easy, it would seem like it’s a no brainer to really get to know the people you hang out with. But I realize more and more that a select few of my friends and family truly know me and my stories and go above and beyond loving me or befriending me. They want to play a role in my happiness and wellness, and I do for them.
Then there was this, which I love as a writer: “Austen was not a novelist for nothing: she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else’s stories—entering into their feelings, validating their experiences—is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness.”
Compared to all of her other novels, I have only read “Persuasion” once. As a kid, it just didn’t resonate with me that much. But now as an adult around the same age as the heroine, Anne Elliot, I think I need to read it again.
In this book, the author learns about the values of community and friendship, which he realizes is harder to find and hold on to as we age out of our youth. He seems to have a point — countless articles and blog posts from 20 and 30-somethings lament friendship breakups and looking for a way to belong when we no longer have common threads of sports teams, college dorms, or youth groups.
“Making a friend had become a whole project, like a high-level diplomatic negotiation or a complicated puzzle that you could only fill in a couple of pieces at a time.”
As we grow older, we have higher standards for our friends and our lovers. We demand relationships that support us, but also challenge us, that accept us, and push us every step of the way. There’s a point when it’s no longer about just getting along with someone, or even just liking them – but it’s about really understanding each other and feeling a sense of comfort and love that is rare but true.
“Sense & Sensibility”
Two sisters, two very different ideas of true love. Today, people marry for love more often than they did in Austen’s time, when it was often about status and security. But Jane is quick to remind us that marrying someone who helps you to continue to grow is indeed the truest way of knowing and loving yourself.
“For Austen,” the author says, “before you can fall in love with someone else, you have to come to know yourself. In other words, you have to grow up.”
My friends that met their match in their late 20s and early 30s seem to have more stories about finding someone they wouldn’t have chosen when they were younger. They took the time to experience life, to do some self-reflection, and to appreciate what a lifetime partnership is all about.
And as I’ve done a lot of self-reflection in this last year, I think I’ll take Deresiewicz’s final statement to heart: “True love takes you by surprise.”
I guess it’s time to read my Austen collection again. How about you? What lessons have you learned from her novels?