When William Deresiewicz decided to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature, he had to read classics he’d previously managed to avoid. Nineteenth-century novels held no charm for him, compared to works by Joyce, Conrad, or Faulkner. And “nothing symbolized the dullness and narrowness of that whole body of work like the name Jane Austen.”
Eventually, though, Deresiewicz discovered what Austen fans (ahem) have known for generations: her wise and witty observations of human nature can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world. In this memoir, subtitled How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, Deresiewicz pairs each Austen book with a theme of self-discovery, from Emma (“Everyday Matters”) to Sense and Sensibility (“Falling in Love”).
In the chapter “Being Good,” Deresiewicz juxtaposes Mansfield Park with a second look at New York high society. When he upgraded from grad-school digs to an apartment in Brooklyn, Deresiewicz made new friends who were wealthier and better connected. Initially, it seemed as if this was what he’d been waiting for, an entrée into “that fabulous, glamorous New York world.” Then he began to observe the greed and cruelty beneath the “glow.”
What was that realm of luxury and cruelty, glamour and greed, coldness and fun, if not a modern-day version of Mansfield Park?
The recognition almost knocked me down. However much I had learned from Austen about myself, I had never dreamed that our worlds bore much resemblance to each other. I lived in a democracy, she lived in an aristocracy. In my world, people could make their way through talent and hard work; in hers, you were pretty much stuck where you were born. . . But now I saw how similar our worlds really were. . . Beneath the ideals, which looked so different, the very same attitudes: the same values, the same motives, the same ambitions. Whatever I might have wanted to believe, I realized, we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.
Even without the promise of life-changing results, there is so much in this memoir that compels me to read Austen’s novels all over again. (I finally made it to Mansfield Park last year.) But the chapter on Persuasion, in which Deresiewicz finds insights into friendship and the making of community, convinced me to work backwards this time, from last published.
Persuasion “won a special place” in Deresiewicz’s heart: “Austen’s final work . . . was unique among her novels for its layered emotional texture and profound depth of feeling. The mood was wistful, melancholy, autumnal, projecting an atmosphere of nostalgia and regret . . .” He notes that “Austen saw, with amazing clairvoyance, that the world she had always known was about to disappear. The old order was yielding, however slowly to the new.” Preordained relationships, such as master/servant or landlord/tenant, were fading; in their place, people would be bound, more and more, “as friend and friend.”
As we approach autumn in this uncommon year of upheaval and loss, it might be wise to navigate the coming months with a friend like Jane Austen.