Jane Austen is often been considered a writer who had "momentous truths to tell." Well, critic William Deresiewicz, the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, was pretty sure she wasn't. Deresiewicz was getting a Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia when he had to read Austen's Emma for a class, and as he began reading, he found the book unbearably banal.
The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village," he wrote. He thought Austen was "the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales" and that just thinking about her made him want to take a nap. (Exactly how I used to feel about Austen!) But eventually, Deresiewicz came around, and decided Austen was pretty remarkable. She made ordinary life come alive in a way that prefigured so many of the important Modernist writers. Far more importantly, she made him think differently about what true intimacy is, the importance of friendship, and even the value of humiliation. By the end of the semester, Deresiewicz was in love … with Jane Austen.
His new book is a recollection of the formative moments in his life, and how Austen's novels helped him find a better understanding of his past and his future and encouraged him to progress from an immature student to a happily married man.
I asked Deresiewicz if there was anything we could learn about a guy simply by discovering he was an Austen fan. Here's what he said:
1. He's not afraid of strong women.
Jane Austen's heroines — like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice and Emma Woodhouse — stand up to men and say what's on their minds. Austen refused to tell the kinds of stories about young women that everyone else was telling in her day, books about abduction and incest and rape. Her heroines aren't passive, aren't piteous, aren't victims, aren't playthings. They control their destinies. They stand as equals. Elizabeth turns down two extremely advantageous marriage proposals because she thinks the guys who're making them are drips. Emma tells Mr. Knightley, who's nearly twice her age, to stop criticizing her and mind his own business. But the strongest woman of all was Jane Austen herself. She wrote things like, "She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas." If a guy is not afraid to spend time with a woman who's capable of coming out with things like that, he's secure enough to deal with anyone.
2. He likes to gossip.
Austen's novels are festivals of small-talk. They aren't just filled with people gossiping, they deal with the very same things that gossip does. A lot of people — mostly guys — consider them trivial and superficial for exactly that reason. But the true Austen fan understands her deepest lesson. By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels, Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don't accord enough respect, in novels or in life. Those little, "trivial" everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what life is really about. She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.
3. He's a good listener.
Austen was not a novelist for nothing: She knew that a person's story is the most personal thing about them, and that paying attention to it is just about the most important thing you can do for someone. In Mansfield Park, the 10-year-old heroine has been living in her uncle's family for about a week when her older cousin Edmund comes upon her on the attic stairs, desperately homesick and in tears. "Let us walk out in the park," he comforts her, "and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters." There's no impatience, no need to worry about being entertaining, no having to watch the other person's eyes glaze over while they think about what they're going to say when you finally stop talking already. That's being a good listener, and if a guy likes to listen to the kinds of stories that Jane Austen has to tell, he probably knows how to do it.
4. He's willing to admit mistakes.
Austen's novels are about growing up, and the way you grow up, she believed, was by making mistakes, owning up to them, feeling really stupid, and learning your lesson. Elizabeth Bennet, who's so splendidly clever and smart, and who turns out to be so deeply, deeply wrong, says it best: "How despicably I have acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Till this moment I never knew myself." That is when Elizabeth crosses the threshold from adolescence to adulthood. Anyone who reads Jane Austen knows that relationships are about screwing up and then being brave enough to acknowledge it and do better the next time.
5. He knows that men and women can be friends.
As far as Austen was concerned, Harry and Sally were wrong: The sex doesn't always get in the way. Anne Elliot — Persuasion's feeling, lovelorn heroine — meets an equally sensitive and broken-hearted young naval officer named Captain Benwick. Three times in the space of a single day, the two of them fall into deep, heartfelt conversation about their favorite poets. But Austen is setting us up, not them. Because there isn't the slightest spark, on either side, of sexual attraction. Austen is teaching us a lesson by tricking us into expecting them to get together. She wants us to realize that a man and a woman — even two young, available men and women — can talk to each other, sympathize with each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other (as Anne and Benwick do) without having to be attracted to each other (as Anne and Benwick clearly aren't). They can, in other words, be friends. A guy who understands that is a guy who's ready to treat you not only as a real human being, but also as an equal.
6. He understands what love is all about.
Everyone believes that love is like it is in Romeo and Juliet: love at first sight, Cupid's arrow, fate, tragedy, the whole menu. Everyone but Austen and her readers, that is. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen wrote the anti-romantic romance. Marianne Dashwood has the whole Romeo and Juliet romance, while her older sister Elinor has a relationship that's so mild and modest you barely know it's there. But Elinor's the one who gets it right. True love is never at first sight, because you need to get to know the other person first. True love takes time. The Jane Austen man? He's in it for the long term.