A literary critic confronts his callow youth and finds salvation in the pages of the English romantic novelist.
In the early pages, former Yale English professor Deresiewicz (Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, 2005) recalls being an unlikely candidate for Jane Austen fandom, let alone the Austen scholar he later became. An aficionado of severe modernist bricks like Ulysses, he first read Emma only because he was compelled to for a course requirement. But Austen’s skewering of contempt and pretentiousness among the English gentry hit home. “[S]he was showing me my own ugly face,” he writes. Each of this book’s main six chapters is framed around a particular Austen novel, along with a life lesson Deresiewicz took from it. In Pride and Prejudice, he learned not to be so quick to judge; through Northanger Abbey, he discovered the importance of understanding others’ perspectives; Mansfield Park imparted a message about the perils of social climbing. The structure is somewhat facile, but his command of Austen’s life and works is assured, and he’s an engaging penitent, exposing his emotional scars without being manipulative. The Mansfield Park chapter is particularly incisive, drilling deep into his motivations for befriending a set of upper-crust New Yorkers, and bouncing that experience against the emotional parrying in Austen’s novel. Deresiewicz’s path of discovery has an Austenish arc. After years of dismissiveness toward others, he learned to become openhearted and—how else could a book like this end?—eventually marry his true love. Though he occasionally ventures deep into the weeds elaborating on a novel’s particular plot point—some of the dust of his dissertation work sticks to these pages—he’s generally careful to keep the book appealing to both Austenites and those looking for a good memoir.
Deresiewicz smartly finds the practical value of Austen’s prose without degrading her novels into how-to manuals.