Wednesday, June 15, 2011
A Jane Austen Education - A Review
Although I have greatly enjoyed most of what Jane Austen wrote, I never liked Mansfield Park. I found Fanny Price insufferable, and Edmund Bertram a bit of a bore. As for the other characters, with the possible exception of Mary Crawford, I didn’t like them enough to care about them. For me, personally, the novel was a dud, but that was before I read William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love and Friendship.
According to Deresiewicz, Austen had something to teach us in Mansfield Park: a form of usefulness. After Edmund encounters ten-year-old Fanny Price, who was crying after being separated from her family and brought to Mansfield Park, he said: “Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters.”
Did Edmund really care about [Fanny’s] brothers and sisters? Probably not. But he cared about her, and she cared about them, and that was enough for him… 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. (p. 161)
Deresiewicz was working on his master’s degree when he was “forced” to read Emma, and it changed his life. He soon found himself immersed in all of Austen’s works, and he had something to take away from each of them. Although I do not agree with all of his conclusions, some of his insights were so eye-opening that I found myself saying out loud: “I never thought of it in that way. I might actually like Emma before her reformation.”
After finishing the book, I realized that Deresiewicz had accomplished something I thought impossible: I found that I liked Edmund Bertram a little more and disliked Fanny Price a little less, and I was interested in what made the Bertrams and the Crawfords tick. In fact, I looked at the novel so differently that I might just have to give it another try.