Finished reading A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz yesterday. Did I shed some tears at the author's closing paragraphs about what Austen left to the world, out of my gratitude for her existence? Maybe.
I enjoyed the book, overall; if you're familiar with Austen's novels you may find the lessons that the author draws from the parallels between his life and each book somewhat predictable (there are only so many ways the story can wind up, if you're comparing your rich friends to the Bertrams in Mansfield Park), but there are lovely little moments of close reading sprinkled in as well, and those were my favorite bits. (I, too, am predictable.)
I'm bailing on How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche, though. I feel a little bit bad about this, especially because it had been misplaced at the public library when I went to look for it, so the very helpful young woman at the information desk had to make phone calls to different departments and everything. But I've skimmed about half the book, and it's lightweight and rather annoying--it never made me want to move out of skimming mode, let's put it that way. Funny how mainstream Shakespeare books are almost never about Shakespeare--you know, the actual poems and plays, and why we might want to read them.* This one follows suit; it's mostly shallow passes at familiar trivia collected together around vague themes. The chapter that made me give up on the book was the one where Shakespeare supposedly invented teenagers; the one about Othello, for example, was just as tangential and contained an equally tenuous assertion that somehow Shakespeare was responsible for Obama's presidency (because he's...Black! And articulate! And that means that he's cannily reworking the Othello narrative that's so embedded in American culture!), but at least the paragraphs about Paul Robeson and Ira Aldridge were interesting (I suppose, if you hadn't already read this material before; but even then I think the real value of the chapter would be in introducing you to those figures, not what Marche actually has to say about them, which is not all that much), because those men were interesting. The "teenagers" chapter consists of a lot of vague comments about how teenagers are gross and ridiculous but also kind of amazing, and...Shakespeare wrote about that in R&J. And also created the state of teenagerhood as we know it, because (and I'm not making this up) 1) Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes became the face of '90s teendom through playing those roles; and 2) Justin Bieber (...I just realized that I don't know how to spell "Bieber." "Beiber?" They both look equally right to me) was from Stratford, Ontario, which is the home of North America's biggest Shakespeare festival.
This chapter also sheds a bit of light on something I found frustrating at times about A Jane Austen Education as well. Clearly William Deresiewicz cares deeply about Austen; the point of the book is that reading Austen actually made him a better human being. Whether or not one thinks that's possible, he certainly does. But at times this has the effect of turning Austen into something that's good for you but not particularly pleasurable--particularly, though not unexpectedly, with Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. He goes so far as to tell us that he never was able to grow to like Fanny Price, but he did learn the lesson that the book was meant to teach us by making her the heroine instead of the ebullient Mary Crawford. And with S&S he claims that while Austen respected Elinor Dashwood, she clearly loved Marianne.
And this latter comment in particular is where my feelings about Deresiewicz' book dovetail momentarily with my feelings about Marche's: they both claim to have knowledge about what the authors meant to do that is based on their negative feelings about characters. Because Deresiewicz doesn't care for Elinor but loves Marianne, Austen must have felt the same way and intended for us to feel that way. Because Marche finds Romeo and Juliet ridiculous, Shakespeare must have meant for them to be ridiculous. That's the point, you see! I'm skeptical of those moments, and my hackles go right up--because to me that sort of thing reads like dismissal in disguise: you don't need to question your reaction to a character if you can claim that the author meant for you to feel that way in the first place.
It's true that I'm more aware of these moments because they tend to center around characters that I love (it's possible that people make claims like this that I just miss because they correspond to my feelings). I love both Romeo and Juliet, and I don't think that they're ridiculous. That doesn't mean that we're necessarily supposed to hold them up for emulation or praise, either; they get things horribly wrong, and they make decisions that I don't always agree with. But I don't think the story works if we look down our noses at them, or even if we chuckle fondly and indulgently at their youthful foibles. (I also think that Shakespeare was more than capable of creating a ridiculous lover--see Silvius in As You Like It, who draws our attention to the performance of his love as an attitude in a way that Romeo never does, because Romeo actually believes in all the things some critics and viewers laugh at--so if we were "supposed" to laugh at Romeo and Juliet [I mean as our sole way of engaging with them], there would be more evidence for that view than the falsely syllogistic logic that we're supposed to find them ridiculous because teenagers are ridiculous, and Romeo and Juliet are teenagers. And even Silvius is more than just ridiculous: Rosalind, for all her welcome poking at posturing, chimes in with sympathy for his feelings, and he gets a lovely speech that turns into a communal round; he finds words that speak for all the lovers in the forest. "Ridiculous" is usually far too simple a judgment.) I think the story totally falls apart if we sniff at them and think, "Yeah, if they hadn't killed themselves, they would have broken up in three weeks anyway, because no one loves like that for real." I think it only works if we can imagine that they could actually forge a new community, and "turn [their] households' rancor to pure love," as Friar Lawrence puts it--or at least, if we can understand that they really believe it. They're trying to do something unprecedented, something brilliant; if they fail, and if they don't know how to cope when it all falls apart on them (oh, they're so desperately young), it doesn't mean that they were foolish or ridiculous to try.
Ahem. Anyway. You all know my feelings about Fanny Price and Elinor, too--and maybe it's that I imprinted on Austen, but when Deresiewicz says that "we" think love should be what Marianne believes it to be, an effortless meeting of soul mates instead of a relationship founded on cold-fish words such as "like" and "esteem," I don't recognize myself at all in that "we." He seems to see these two novels in particular as an exercise in denial: Austen holds back the thing we really want, the sparkling heroine and the throbbing love story, in order to teach us to examine our expectations. But the problem with this reading for me, personally, is that I'm always on the side of like and esteem. I'm sure I've said this before in some shape or form, but for me the most romantic line in Pride and Prejudice is not "You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you"; it's "For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him." That takes my breath away, every time I get to that sentence. Being proud of someone you love, being able to like him, esteem him, respect his judgment and his understanding and his character? That's the most romantic thing there is.
(Ugh, I've gone all swoony. Help.)
I know I've said before--probably in conjunction with Edmund Bertram, who usually needs similar defending--that I think "steadiness" is a very sexy word. And if you look at the characters I wind up loving best, from Austen's heroes to my lovely, loyal Rory Williams-Pond, you can see that if I learned a lesson from reading Austen, I learned it really, really well. It's just difficult for me to see that as only a lesson, an exercise in correction, authorial abstemiousness in order to teach us something we didn't really want to know. I think there's an ardency in dependability, and that gets ignored in discussions like these, as though we need to learn how to prefer what is thin and flavorless instead of recognizing that these virtues have a flavor all their own.
*This is also true of a book I otherwise enjoyed, Paul Collins' The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World. I got to the end of the book, which was a nice history of the ups and downs of this famous book as a physical object, and realized that the part Collins left out was why we should care--why we do care; I think that's more accurate--about this book in the first place. It's just taken as a given that we know Shakespeare and that we love him, and I don't think that's true for many, many people. Probably those people aren't likely to be reading these books in the first place, I suppose. I suppose there are people who care about Shakespeare, and people who don't, and the idea that you could make the latter into the former by getting them to read a book is sort of silly. I wish I'd come to that realization before putting myself through years of grad school, though, since that possibility was the whole point of this endeavor.