Friday, December 30, 2011

'A Jane Austen Education' book


A Jane Austen Education (how six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter) by William Dereciewicz, while not necessarily a cheerful book in and of itself, gives me hope for the post-moderns. Dereciewicz, a book critic and former associate professor at Yale, professes in his new book that of Jane Austen's six novels Mansfield Park and Sense & Sensibility were the hardest for him to swallow; this is by no means surprising as these specifically focus on social virtue which is completely foreign to the post-modern mind. Things like inner-knowledge and self-awareness - which both Fanny and Elinor practice - is elusive for most of us. In her book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, Emsley suggests that Fanny does not only consider what is best for herself, but what is best universally. "Part of Fanny's wisdom involves not just the strength of her own mind and the rightness of her own judgment but also the ways in which she thinks in the context of tradition and authority..." Tradition and authority....hmmmm....these grate on the modern ear as well, but I was encouraged by Dereciewicz's allowing Jane Austen to teach him, and through his book, me. He resembled many who have made so many assumptions about Austen that are based on the movie adaptations at best (or would that be worst?), but as he reads her books his assumptions melt away to be replaced by revelations about himself. He states, 
I was used to thinking about growing up in terms of going to school and getting a job...If I had been asked to consider what kinds of personal qualities it might involve -- which I doubt I ever was -- I would have spoken of things like self-confidence and self-esteem. As for anything like character conduct, who even used such words anymore? (p.51)
This book is by and large autobiographical. Yes, it is about Jane Austen, but it is more about Deresiewicz and how he was changed by reading her books. If read as an autobiography his book is rewarding. If read as a definitive work on Austen...not so much. I enjoyed traveling along with him through Austen's books, learning along with him, being reminded of why they are important to life. But I can't help but know that there is still a piece of the puzzle missing for him. The 'why' of it all. Why do we care? Why do we need to practice the social virtues? God is the implicit missing link in this chain of social virtue - it is the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, & Love which provide the soil for the classical virtues (Prudence, Justice, Wisdom, etc.) and the social virtues which then arise from them both. I still felt that he was missing these key things, although it is absolutely encouraging to see an iron-clad post-modern mind willing to really listen to Austen's works and let it speak to them, rather than re-interpreting her to fit their ideology. Even a modern mindset is no proof of invulnerability against the art & the thought of Austen - what an encouraging thought.

However, there is a great deal more to say, and much farther to go. When, for example, he tells us that Henry was trying to show Catherine how absurd the social conventions of her day were (p.88), or when he tells us that Anne's "family simply didn't matter to her anymore" (p.183), he is translating her books with a post-modern eye; misrepresenting Austen's essential elements. Austen's practicing of the virtues is not to avoid pain or increase pleasure (i.e. to be 'happy'), but rather the change of self which involves wisdom and leads to true and lasting joy. He writes, however, that Emma changed his whole way of thinking about life. "I still loved modernism, I just no longer believed it was the only way to make art, and I certainly didn't think it was the way to live." (p.34) The fact that he was willing to be changed by Austen gives me hope that the virtues of which she wrote will someday find a way into his soul.


Lit~Lass said...

I'm glad you got to read this book so soon. This is a great review! In fact, I'm envious of how well you've articulated both the the problems and positive potential of this book. ;)

Your final paragraph was thought-provoking. I guess I agree with Deresiewicz that there were some social conventions that Austen considered absurd and mocked. Yet I don't see her as a rebel against convention, because in S&S we see convention as protecting a girl's reputation and purity and "mere manners" as showing whether there's underlying selfishness or unselfishness in the attitudes to others. So I don't think she'd have a problem with "conventions" (of course, I don't mean morals) changing, if the change brought greater attention to the virtues. (I feel like I'm stepping into Jane Eyre territory here. To me the great question of that oft-misread book is which conventions of Victorian society supported real Christianity and which stifled it.)

And while Anne's family certainly seem to be doing their best to alienate her from them emotionally, to the very end of the book she's worrying about her father's reputation, etc. Dereiewicz probably said that because of his troubled relationship with his father. Certainly I'd say that Austen wrote about dysfunctional families, but Deresiewicz put a modern slant on it, that just cut the father out.

(And I really ought to be able to spell this guy's name by now, but I can't. lol)

Esther said...

Thanks for your comment - A thanks for every line! :) I know! I still can't spell his name without looking. I like your thoughts on S&S. He seems to separate sense from sensibility as if they don't flow in and out of one another. Both Elinor and Marianne are misunderstood when this is done (or Anne, for that matter), and one misses the sisters learning from and teaching one another. Brandon made the observation that he did not wish for Marianne to change - to adopt the opinion of the world; Elinor tells Marianne that she never wished her sister to agree with the inhabitants of the Barton House - only to moderate her behaviour toward them. When Elinor is represented as all sense (which equals to having no feeling for most readers), we misjudge her. The ending of chapter 16 refutes this, I think, and is what you touched on: "His [Edward's] coldness and reserve mortified her [Elinor] severely; she was vexed and half angry; but resolving to regulate her behaviour to him by the past rather than the present, she avoided every appearance of resentment or displeasure and treated him as she thought he ought to be treated..."

I do admire that Deresiewicz put his own faults, etc. on paper for the world to see (even if they would be considered 'cool') and was humble enough to admit that his life needed great change, but there's more layers that he's just not unearthed yet. What are your thoughts? You may have hit on something when you differentiated between 'conventions' and morals. Perhaps he equates the two, so if one changes it's only proper to change the other.
(Cool thought on Jane Eyre...I'll have to think on that.)

You are right in saying that he saw his own family reflected in the stories; even making a comment to the effect that there are no happy families in Austen. That's plain codswallop.

Lit~Lass said...

Ugh. Sorry for replying two weeks later. I get busy and then distracted.

Yes, Elinor certainly feels very deeply, but in comparison to Marianne (and because of the prevailing emotionalism of our own age) many people seem to easily miss it. (The film versions have tried to show her sensibility, but usually in ways not found in the book, which distorts it a little.) I also like the quote you brought up that shows her charity.

I guess my basic thoughts are that it is the very nature of postmodernism (or whatever you want to call the mindset of modern secular society)to confuse conventionality and morality. In the Victorian age (going back to Jane Eyre again)the tendency was to make conventions (especially related to class, women's place, etc) morally binding.

I sympathize with the modern emphasis on equality and individuality, but believe that in throwing out the 'conventions' that impeded those things, they've also thrown out the principles that are unchanging, no matter what the culture or era. (And perhaps this is most notable in the area of marriage and sexuality.To many seculars marriage is just a 'convention', right?)

I have to admit that to my mind the really happy families in Austen are quite peripheral. I'd probably say the Martins and the Harvilles are truly happy, the Dashwood women, the Woodhouses and Knightleys are loving families with misunderstandings, and the Bennets, Bertrams, and Prices are seriously dysfunctional families that are destroying each other. (Of course I haven't covered all the families, but I just noticed the interesting pattern of working, upward-moving families being happier than titled or extremely poor ones and an itching-uncomfortableness among the genteel, but sinking ones.) I guess my bigger problem is when people read into this about Jane Austen herself and her views on family. Lately I've read several people who seem to think Austen had a horrible family life and was showing her rebellion in her books. I certainly don't think it was perfect - she was a strong-willed woman, and families naturally have conflicts. But I'm uncomfortable with the implication that she was constantly (covertly) attacking her family in her writings (letters and novels). Perhaps the perpetrators of this image are trying to get rid of the image of the writer of idyllic village romances, but I think they sometimes make her into a bitter, tortured, radical feminist with a subtly malicious gang of brothers effacing her true character after her death.
But it's been a long time since I've read a biography, and I need to read all the letters to form my own view of her family relations.

I guess what this rant is ultimately saying is that while she portrayed deeply flawed families, I think she believed strongly in the importance and centrality of family. (Arguably all the books end, not so much with romance, as with the prospect of new families, comprised of people who have learned self-government through dealings with their own families and the outside world.)

Esther said...

Your reply certainly made up for the short wait! I've been listening to Nadia May read S&S (thanks for the recommendation!) & have been noticing Elinor's emotion more & am starting to value her subtlety. Marianne is more noticeable but watch out for Elinor. :) The conversation she has with her brother on Mrs Ferrars disowning Edward is really funny, but completely lost him.
Your ideas on postmodernism reminds me of something in Sarah Emsley's book where she discusses the fact that JA writes about all of the virtues as opposed to THE (ahem) virtue of female chastity which was almost exclusively held up above all else. (I concur with your capitulation on modern thought.. Well said!)
That is an interesting pattern on the families in JA & that holds true for most of them. The Morlands are a central family and seem pretty happy especially since Richard is not at all addicted to locking up his daughters, but they are 'working' as you pointed out. The Elliots popped into my mind the instant I read your description of the “itching-uncomfortableness among the genteel”. (I bet it would be quite enjoyable to hang out with the Wentworths & the Crofts. :))
On the topic of JA's home life: I writhed while I watched 'Jane Austen Regrets' Really? Really? How could a woman that bitter & regretful write some of the most hilarious lines in literature & not just in her novels ('Plan of a Novel' & 'History of England' just to cite a couple of examples)? I had read her nephew's biography before watching that movie & when I read more on her life I found several sources bashing her nephew's rendition saying that he was just trying to sugar-coat everything to make the family look good. I'm not saying that there's not always the possibility for some of that, but how are these postmodernists a more trustworthy source on JA's innermost thoughts & feelings? (Margaret Doody wrote an essay in which she called the assumption that JA was happy in her domestic life the “usual twaddle”.) Just some thoughts... Have you read much on her life? Do you have a good source? I don't believe that she could've written the things she did without understanding. When I read “Her Spirits were naturally good, and not easily depressed, and she possessed such a fund of vivacity and good humour as could only be damped by some very serious vexation” I think of Jane. This is certainly true & well said - “Arguably all the books end, not so much with romance, as with the prospect of new families, comprised of people who have learned self-government through dealings with their own families and the outside world.”

Lydia said...

Hope it was a good read. I'm glad you sift through these works and give us your meritorious comments, so I don't have to. I appreciated his acknowledgment of self-virtues vs. character building.

Lit~Lass said...

Oh, yes, I've got to go reread that funny conversation between Elinor and John. And you're right about Austen pointing out all the virtues - not just THE female chastity one. In fact, I'm uncomfortable with how, not just in Victorian times, but even in some modern evangelical movements it (and all its accompanying issues) can become the central focus. But I mentioned things like sex and marriage because they come up in the JA Education book and because while modern humanism can get some things right, being kind to others/respecting others' rights isn't enough. Because human nature is prone to selfishness and self-deception, we need a higher authority than our own unassisted judgment on "Do Unto Others". (I'm tired and I'm rambling.)

I didn't mention the Morlands, because we don't spend a lot of time with them in the novel, but I agree that they seem quite happy.
And, I think the Crofts would be my ideal choice for neighbors. ;)

I was thinking of some ideas at the Sharp Elves Society blog (you can find it in my blog list) when I spoke of viewing her as a "radical feminist with malicious brothers"; but "Jane Austen Regrets" is another prime example. I wonder what sources they used for that, or if it was mostly the scrip-writer/producers' coloring. I'll admit that, while I tend to agree with your assessment of JA's personality, I've come across many disparaging comments that have prejudiced me against her nephew's biography.

No, I haven't read much on her life. (One bio I can hardly remember, back when I first became a Janeite.) But this discussion has motivated me to order a few, including the nephew's. I'll try to post on my blog about them when I read them.

Esther said...

It's silly how chastity is elevated & the other virtues forgotten. Maybe those who focus on "THE virtue" are comfortable with that because they think it's easy to SEE when the other virtues may not be, & one can easily feel oh, so holy, when we just lightly skip over all the rest and land on that one.

We do have to have a higher authority than ourselves, & you were right to pick on Marianne's romanticism (on your blog), for she told Elinor, in reference to her visit to Allenham with Willoughby, "if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong". Unfortunately, we do not always feel as we should; Ideally we would, but we don't. She needed Elinor's wisdom more than she knew. And thankfully she did acknowledge a little while later "perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged". It's exciting to go back through and see how Emma needed Knightly; Elizabeth, Darcy; Darcy, Elizabeth; Catherine, Tilney; Wentworth, Anne; etc. because respect and kindness are empty without the virtues.

I will definitely check out the Sharp Elves as I've not heard of them. Have you read 'Jane Austen and the War of Ideas' by Marilyn Butler? I'm interested to read it because I've noticed it referenced in several articles and some books. I don't know about the accuracy of her nephew's bio., but I'd like more proof than I've hitherto seen on why it's a *complete* fabrication. If you come across anything enlightening on the subj. pass it along.

Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas said...

Really enjoyed your review! I agree that it's the postmodern lens he uses to see the world and read literature that interferes with his ability to understand what Austen really means. It results in a superficial reading or misreading of her novels. The Mansfield Park chapter, for instance, he focuses on the depravity of wealthy people. While a critique of the aristocracy may certainly be one of the themes of the novel, the reason Mary and Henry are flawed has very little to do with their wealth and everything to do with their lack of a moral education. Unless we understand the concept of virtue, we won't understand Austen...however, it seems that Austen may have given him the first step in opening his mind to virtue. Perhaps he just needs to read her works for another 10 years ;)

Esther said...

Thank you for reading my review! I agree completely with your comment. Many of the modernists that I've read on JA seem to be interpreting her books to their advantage: Instead of being changed by them, they want to change them to make themselves look and feel better. I believe he is guilty of this, but I also think that there's a spark of hope there, and if he, as you say, sticks with it for another decade or two he may experience that change. Have you read Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley? It is the best book that I've read on JA. She does a great job demonstrating how JA weaves the balancing of the virtues throughout her books. I think you'd really like it! I wrote posts on each chapter starting here: If you do read the book, I'd love to hear what you think.