Thoughts: Emma, by Jane Austen, and A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

I'm ready to duck from flying tomatoes after this next sentence, but I have to be honest. I've never liked Jane Austen. Granted, until recently I'd only read Pride and Prejudice (once in high school as required reading, and once again after graduating college as pleasure reading, because I don't believe in forming final opinions of a book assigned to me). I didn't like it either time.

Sure, I appreciate Austen's wit, and her humour (so much so that I was inclined to spell the word the British way when typing, and don't intend to change it), and her intelligence. But appreciating and enjoying are two very different adjectives, aren't they?

Emma was my attempt at keeping an open mind, trying a second Austen novel--and one praised as one of her finest, no less. Sadly, it met the same fate as Pride and Prejudice. I finished it, but I never liked it.

But then, maybe Emma is not a book that Austen actually intended us to like. Emma herself is a perfectly disagreeable character, and most of the people around her are trivial and insipid and shallow and vain, and nothing particularly interesting happens to any of the characters until the story is wrapped up in a neat little package with a cherry on top. William Deresiewicz argues in his essay on Emma in his recent book, A Jane Austen Education, that is precisely the beauty of Emma--the simple, dull, and the mundane are, in fact, what real lives are made up of; to spend an entire novel--or, if you will, an entire life--waiting for something riveting to happen, you miss out on what is actually happening in front of you.

Deresiewicz's essay is what I wish introductions to classics could always be: insightful and informative without ever spoiling the story to come. He reveals enough detail to lay forth his argument without assuming the reader is familiar with the novel being discussed, setting us up for a richer, more refined reading of the book whether a first or twelfth or twenty-fifth read. 

I'm glad I read Emma, glad I gave Austen a second chance (though I haven't truly changed my opinion), and glad I started this read with Deresiewicz's essay (even if I can't pronounce his name). It's one of those must-reads I firmly believe should remain a must-read, though maybe not a must-like; A Jane Austen Education, too, is a must-read for anyone setting out to read an Austen novel (or, for those unlike myself, anyone already well-versed in the author's major works).


Emma | Jane Austen | Penguin Threads Edition, Paperback | 400 pages | Buy from an independent near you

A Jane Austen Education | William Deresiewicz | Hardcover | 272 pages | Buy from an independent near you


  1. While I don't have mixed feelings about Austen or Emma, I did have mixed feelings about the book of essays, but I can see how the reading of the latter might enhance the reading of the former!

    1. Interesting! I actually found that his essay on Emma added a lot to my reading of the novel -- but I only read the one essay, not the others, so maybe it was just a matter of good timing for me!


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