The Chronicle Review

A Jane Austen Education

Jenny Lynn for The Chronicle Review

May 01, 2011

From the beginning, my love for Jane Austen had been intertwined with my love for the professor with whom I had first encountered her. He was the one who had taught the seminar where I read Emma, he was the one who had shepherded me through my oral exams, and now he would be the one with whom I would undertake the inconceivable task of writing my dissertation.

He was the youngest old person I had ever met. He was already old enough to retire by the time I took his class, but he was still going stronger than anyone else in the department. He advised a huge number of graduate students, taught courses on a vast range of subjects, helped run about eight professional journals, published a new book every three years or so, and even took on extra classes—an unheard-of thing and a testament to his incredible devotion as a teacher.

But it wasn't just his energy. He had a young person's ability to see the world with fresh eyes. His white hair shot up off his forehead like a jolt of discovery, and when he came across a new idea, all the lines in his face would stand at attention. He always wanted to hear what you had to say, no matter how much you stumbled while you were trying to say it, because he never missed an opportunity to learn something new.

It took me a while to figure all this out, though. In fact, I wondered at first if I had made a mistake by taking his class. That first day, as he came bustling into the room with a stack of books under his arm, a little old man with a white beard, his manner seemed oddly abrupt, almost jumpy, his eyes kind of squirrelly, and he gave a sort of chuckle, as if he were enjoying a private joke that he didn't plan to share with us. He came across as eccentric, to say the least, if not actually soft in the head, and the impression was not dispelled by the questions he proceeded to ask.

They seemed absurdly simple—silly, really, almost stupid, too basic and obvious to ask a class of freshmen, let alone a graduate seminar. But when we tried to answer them, we discovered that they were not simple at all. They were profound, because they were about all the things we had come to take for granted—about novels, about language, about reading. Within half an hour, I had started to get what the old man was doing. He was stripping the paint off our brains. He was showing us that everything is open to question, especially the things we thought we already knew. He was teaching us to approach the world with curiosity and humility rather than the professional certainty we were all trying so hard to cultivate. "Answers are easy," he would later say. "You can go out to the street and any fool will give you answers. The trick is to ask the right questions."

I knew a good thing when I saw one. I took a second class with him and became a regular at office hours. He never made us feel like anything less than his equals, but he could be shifty. If you said something vague or half-formed, he'd pretend to misunderstand you, as if he were slightly dense, so that by fighting your way back to what you really meant, you'd have to figure out what you'd been trying to say in the first place. I'd catch myself walking out of his office backwards, as if I were in the presence of royalty.

My dearest hope, as I looked forward to teaching, was to have the same kind of impact on my students. But once I got into the classroom, all the air went out of my balloon. I would come in with long chains of questions that I had painstakingly designed to lead my students to the ideas I thought they needed to grasp, but they never managed to give me the answers I wanted, and the whole thing would deteriorate into a guessing game. Instead of being receptive to what I had to tell them, they would fold their arms and sit back in their chairs and stare at me with those skeptical-teenager looks on their faces. I'd rush out of class with a guilty feeling in my stomach, like a criminal making a getaway, or try to engage a student on the way out, hoping for a last-minute reprieve. But of course, they couldn't get out of there fast enough. I wanted to blame my students for the way things were going, but I secretly knew that I wasn't the teacher I thought I was going to be, and I certainly wasn't anything like my professor. I began to wonder if my whole desire to go into the academy hadn't been a terrible mistake.

Under the circumstances, I was only too happy to turn back to my other work. The first chapter of my dissertation was going to be about Jane Austen, and I started out by going back and rereading all of her novels, this time in chronological order. That meant beginning with Northanger Abbey, a short, light work whose playfulness and youthful charm had delighted me the first time around, but that I hadn't paid a lot of attention to otherwise.

Catherine Morland, the figure at the center of the story, was only 17—one of the youngest and certainly the most naïve of Austen's heroines. Catherine's moment came when she was taken on holiday to Bath, the most fashionable resort in England. There, she fell in with two pairs of siblings, each of whom decided to take her in hand and teach her, in very different ways, about life. One pair was John and Isabella Thorpe, vain and knowing young people who stuffed Catherine's head full of false ideas. Isabella, four years older than Catherine, introduced her protégé to all the arts of insincerity: how to flirt, how to lie, how to be a tease.

Fortunately, Catherine was also befriended by a second brother and sister, Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Henry, who was also a good bit older than the heroine, went about educating her in a completely different way. Clever and animated, he was so quirky and silly that Catherine did not know what to make of him at first. This was their very first dialogue, during a dance:

"I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly."

"You need not give yourself that trouble, sir."

"No trouble, I assure you, madam." Then forming his features into a set smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, "Have you been long in Bath, madam?"

Instead of training Catherine to follow the conventions of life in her society, Henry was trying to wake her up to them by showing her how absurd they were. But he didn't do it by being didactic; he did it by provoking her, taking her by surprise, making her laugh, throwing her off balance, forcing her to figure out what was going on and what it meant—getting her to think, not telling her how.

A few days later, the two were dancing together again. John Thorpe, idly observing the proceedings, sauntered over to Catherine to engage her attention (partners would separate and come back together in the kind of dancing Austen's characters did), and when Henry rejoined her, he lodged the following protest:

"I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours."

"But they are such very different things!" ...

"In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man. ... But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water. That, I suppose, was the difference of duties which struck you, as rendering the conditions incapable of comparison."

"No, indeed, I never thought of that."

"Then I am quite at a loss."

Now Henry was coming at Catherine from a different direction, and for a different reason. He was still using humor, but it was a humor of paradox, not imitation, and instead of provoking Catherine to question social conventions, he was asking her to examine her mental categories. Marriage is one thing, dancing something else, but are they really so different? Sort of and sort of not—and Henry was challenging her to sort out how. The earlier scene had been a performance: he mimicked, she laughed. This one was a dialogue. Now he was inciting her to speak, then pretending to misunderstand her, even at the risk of looking like a dunce, in order to force her to fight her way back to what she meant—and thus, to figure out what she really thought in the first place.

And that's when I realized what I'd been looking at the whole time, and what I was doing wrong as a teacher. Sly, impish, ironic, willing to play the fool for the sake of getting someone to think—a little quirky, a little abrupt, but always exciting to talk to: That was Henry Tilney, but it was also my professor. What made my professor such a great teacher was not that he was brilliant, or that he had read everything—though he was, and he had—but that he forced us to think for ourselves, just as Henry did to Catherine, and provoked us to reconsider our assumptions, just as he did to her.

We were all a bunch of Catherines, after all, us graduate students, stepping uncertainly into a new phase of life. No, that actually gives us too much credit. At least Catherine knew that she was naïve. We were really a bunch of Thorpes, young people coping with feelings of insecurity in an intimidating new world by pretending to know more than we really did, and being rather competitive about it, to boot. My professor was the opposite. He pretended to know less than he did, refused to play the role of wise man or sage. Or rather, he knew that he knew less than he did, because he recognized that everything he knew—all of his own assumptions and conceptions—was subject to constant reappraisal.

He taught by asking questions, and so did I, but only now did I see how utterly different our questions were. Mine were really only answers in disguise, as if I were hosting some sadistic form of Jeopardy! I wasn't a teacher, I was a bully. My students were the Catherines, coming to the marvelous world of college, bustling with new sights and possibilities, just as she had come, wide-eyed, to Bath. But I wasn't Henry, I was Isabella. I wasn't helping them, I was manipulating them—and doing so, to a far greater extent than I wanted to admit, in order to gratify my own ego. I was telling them what to think, even if, by trying to get them to say it first—in other words, by putting words in their mouths—I was pretending not to. I was trying to turn them into little versions of me, instead of better versions of themselves.

My professor was like Henry, but of course, as I quickly realized, they were both like Henry's creator. Playful, impish, provoking: This was Austen exactly, and never more so than in Northanger Abbey. Austen used the novel to make us her students: Henry was her surrogate, and Catherine was ours, and she went about teaching just the way he did. In fact, she taught through him. Everything he said to Catherine, she was also necessarily saying to us. When Henry ridiculed the conventions of polite chatter, it was the empty gestures of our own conversations that we inevitably thought of. When he rearranged Catherine's mental categories, it was our sluggish ideas that started to wake up and stir.

But she also did far more than that. Henry taught, in that first scene, through impersonation. He pretended to become someone else—set smile, softened voice, simpering air—and proceeded to act that character out in a way that revealed his folly to Catherine, his audience. Austen did not pretend to become someone else, but she certainly did impersonate any number of characters and put on satiric performances meant to call our attention to behavior we normally take for granted. Austen, like Henry, taught by showing—which means, by arousing. By putting something in front of us and expecting us to think about it.

Now I understood why the novel had to begin in the odd way that it did. "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy," the first sentence read, "would have supposed her born to be an heroine." The line was a joke about the conventions of Gothic fiction, but now I realized that it was also a way of calling attention to the fact that this novel, too, would necessarily trade in conventions. A heroine and a romance, a Mr. Wrong and a Mr. Right, perils and misunderstandings, conflicts and complications, revelations and reversals, and at last, a happy ending: These were the conventions that Austen herself employed in every one of her novels, and she could not have done without them any more than a detective novelist can do without a corpse. Yet she didn't want us to get sucked in by her conventions, either—didn't want us to let ourselves be lulled into the trance of gullibility that readers are always falling into, mistaking an artificial version of reality for the genuine article. Stay awake, Austen was telling us. Don't take things for granted, not even the things I'm telling you myself.

My professor taught novels, and Catherine was mistaught by them, but neither he nor Austen was finally concerned with novels as such. Learning to read, they both knew, means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you're looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time. I understood, now, how my professor had managed to keep himself so young. He never settled into certainty, never stopped challenging himself—and getting us to challenge him—as hard as he challenged us.

There was a paradox, I realized, at the heart of Austen's work. She showed us how to grow up, but she also wanted us to remain young. Her heroines became adults, but her adults, by and large, did not look very good at all. But although it was a paradox, it didn't have to be a tragedy. You can get older, she was telling me, but you can still remain young. That, I started to realize, was part of what had been keeping me from growing up for all those years, the fear of foreclosing possibilities, of turning into another boring adult with a spouse and a house. Now I was getting a new idea about what life can have in store.

One day, my professor called my attention to a scene I hadn't thought about before. "It's the one where Catherine tells Henry, 'I have just learnt to love a hyacinth,'" he said. "Now that's exceedingly interesting, don't you think?"

"Uh, I guess so," I said—not an unusual response on my part.

"Well," he went on, "Austen is saying that we need to learn to love things, that it doesn't just happen by itself. That's not an obvious idea."

"No, I guess not," I said. "Love is supposed to be completely spontaneous and natural, like love at first sight."

"Right," he said, "but the most remarkable thing is, we can learn. And think about what Henry says in response." He could apparently recite the scene from memory, but I needed a little help.

"Who can tell," he quoted, "the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose? The mere habit of learning to love is the thing."

The habit of learning: If Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was 17, my professor was telling me—or rather, Austen was telling me, through my professor—I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place. But I was starting to get it now: The wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise. Just when you think that nothing can be more uninteresting than a hyacinth (or a scene about a hyacinth, or an author who writes scenes about hyacinths), you find it becoming a new source of joy.

But Austen's ideas about staying young contained a further paradox. When I went back and looked up the scene for myself, I remembered how Catherine had learned to love a hyacinth. "Your sister taught me," she said to Henry, "I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom Street." Young people, Austen was saying, need to learn to be young, must be woken up to the world's physical beauty (the loveliness of hyacinths) as well as their own moral beauty (their capacity to love them). They need to be taught, somehow, by older people, people who have learned it already—people like the Tilneys, or my professor, or Jane Austen.

Another day, my professor and I were talking about Austen's ideas about mentors and maturation. "Austen is saying that it's important to spend time with extraordinary people," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "So that's what I advise you to do: Spend time with extraordinary people."

I had come to graduate school with a very different idea about what it means to get an education. It was an idea that derived from my father. Here was a man who had earned three degrees, spoke six languages, and had taught himself all about classical music and European art and Western history—a man who equated being educated with knowing things, knowing facts. And the purpose of knowing things, in a strangely circular way, was simply to "be" educated, to be able to pride yourself on being a "man of culture" (and feel superior to those who weren't). Knowledge, culture, ego: That was still pretty much the formula I was working with until well into my time in graduate school—as my students could readily attest. But now I was learning a new idea—about education, but also about being a man—"of culture" or otherwise. 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.

For it was Austen, of course, who had ultimately taught me these things. While she had no patience with ignorance and valued characters who had "information" and "conversation"—people who knew what was going on in the world and could talk about it intelligently—she ridiculed the emphasis, in both the education of children and the self-education of adults, on the mere acquisition of facts. Although she read her share of "serious" books, the kind she valued most, of course, were novels. It was not a fashionable position—novels were considered too trivial and feminine in her day—but she defended it without apology.

As for history, the most prestigious form of reading, this was how Catherine, explaining why she hated it, described what it involved: "The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all." It was a great line, that second half, but Austen also intended something deeper by it, a sly reference to her own project. "Hardly any women at all": in other words—since women had essentially no role in public affairs—nothing about private life, nothing about personal life. Whereas the novel, the great genre of private life, was almost always, in Austen's day, about women, and almost always by them—two of the main reasons that people were always so quick to put it down.

Histories tell us what happened, but novels can teach us something even more important: what might happen. The opening line of Northanger Abbey was a joke about Gothic fiction and a way of calling attention to Austen's own use of conventions, but it was also, I now saw, something still more. "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." From the humblest beginnings, the greatest possibilities. Catherine never did become a traditional heroine, never did have the wild passions and epic adventures that we're supposed to find so admirable. Instead, she became something better. By waking up to the world, by renouncing certainty and cynicism, by opening herself to new experiences—all of which take real courage, real strength—she turned her life into an adventure that would never end. This, Austen told us, is true heroism. Life, if you live it right, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most, I now understood, is yourself.

These were lessons to explore for a lifetime, but the first place I applied them was the classroom. Instead of thinking of a session as a kind of engineering problem—how to transfer a certain quantity of material from my head to my students'—I started to see it as an opportunity to incite them to discover the powers that were waiting, unborn, within them, and by doing so, take both themselves and me by surprise. I went from feeling that a good class was one in which I had "gotten my points across" to regarding it as one in which I had learned something myself—not because my learning was the point, but because if I had found out something new, it meant that I had given my students the freedom to think their way beyond me.

All of a sudden, teaching became a joyful experience. I arrived in the classroom with excitement and left it with exhilaration. The time in between, which now seemed as if it were never long enough, began to feel like a collaboration, even an adventure—as if I were working a trapeze, and the best moments came when I let go of the bar, let go of my plan, and just flew through the air, confident that someone would be there on the other side to catch me.

I began to like my students rather than resenting them. They seemed really smart and interesting all of a sudden—because I was letting them be, instead of having to suppress their talents in order to maintain my fragile sense of intellectual authority. They seemed to start to like me, too, began to come to talk to me, even confide in me. Best of all, a few of them became my friends, in that special way that can happen between a student and a teacher—the way that had happened between me and that extraordinary person that I felt so privileged to know.

It turned out that I hadn't made a mistake by wanting to become a professor, after all. It had just taken me a while to discover my potential. I had started to learn how to teach—but more important, after more than 20 years in school, I had finally learned how to learn.

William Deresiewicz writes essays and reviews for various publications. This essay is adapted from his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, just published by Penguin Press.