cover of A Jane Austen EducationSince turning the last page of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, I’ve been thinking of how to begin a short review of the book, which I found to be candid, insightful, and refreshingly well-written in that Orwellian windowpane kind of way that nearly escapes our attention.

My inspiration has come from none other than V. S. Naipaul, who recently said of Austen, when he was asked if the writing of any woman measures up to his own, “I don’t think so.” He went on to say that he “couldn’t possibly share [Austen’s] sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

“He felt that women writers were ‘quite different’. He said: ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.’

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’. ‘And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,’ he said. Read More

Pride and prejudice, indeed! Kamy Wicoff, founder of She Writes, has written a most satisfying response to Naipaul’s sweeping dismissal of female writers, so I will focus here on his more pointed criticism of Austen.

The short version: Are you kidding me?!

The slightly longer version, a single paragraph written in the form of flattery most sincere:

No one who has ever read Jane Austen with attention would suppose her to have been anything but a master storyteller, though it is a truth as unfortunate as it is widely acknowledged that some men face a considerable obstacle in this regard. The author of a recent account of his own particular lessons learned from the novels of Miss Austen, a Mr. William Deresiewicz, of the city of Portland, in the state of Oregon, a fact he tells us “surprises him as much as you,” explains the situation thus: “I’m a guy, after all. We aren’t exactly taught to pay any attention to ‘minute particulars.’” He continues, “We are expected to preserve a manly silence, or speak only of impersonal matters—in other words, girls, gear, and sports or, if we take ourselves very seriously, politics and public affairs.” Such were his original propensities, but this very same Mr. Deresiewicz, in prose exquisite, with candor uncompromising, and taking each novel in turn, comes to grow more than a little fond of Austen’s minute particulars, holding her in the most high regard and esteem, coming in the end to know that “Feelings are the primary way we know about novels”—and something even more important: “You didn’t have to be certain, I now saw, to be strong, and you didn’t have to dominate people to earn their respect. Real men weren’t afraid to admit that they still had things to learn—not even from a woman.”

Read an excerpt.

Visit William Deresiewicz’s website and blog.

Related blog post: “Has a book changed the way you live?”