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Originally published Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Book review

New books on Jane Austen: lessons for the ages from the author of 'Pride and Prejudice'

Two new books, "A Jane Austen Education" by William Deresiewicz and "Why Jane Austen?" by Rachel Brownstein, look at the question of why Jane Austen's novels are so enduringly popular, and what modern lessons can be learned from a 19th-century novelist. Deresiewicz will discuss his book Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

William Deresiewicz

The author of "A Jane Austen Education" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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'A Jane Austen Education'

by William Deresiewicz

Penguin Press, 257 pp., $25.95

'Why Jane Austen?'

by Rachel M. Brownstein

Columbia University Press, 266 pp., $29.50

There are no vampires or zombies; no bodice-ripping sequels to "Pride and Prejudice"; and no accounts of Mr. Darcy's imaginary past, or any appearance by Colin Firth. There are no sequels or prequels or any other -quels.

What we have here is a pair of fairly serious, scholarly books whose authors are working hard to explain the phenomenon of why Jane Austen — particularly her novel "Pride and Prejudice" — has hit the cultural sensibilities of the past two decades so hard. And, of course, why Jane Austen is so important to them, the authors in question.

William Deresiewicz — who formerly taught at Yale and who coincidentally wrote a positive blurb for the Rachel Brownstein book — examines in his own new book Jane Austen's six major novels as lessons for his personal life. "Emma," for example, taught him to pay attention to the "small, 'trivial,' everyday things," and the fact that a lot of things he said and did to other people around him "really pissed them off." And "Pride and Prejudice," encountered in Deresiewicz's third year of graduate school, caused him to fall in love with the heroine, Elizabeth ("I wanted to wring Darcy's neck"). With Elizabeth's epiphanies about the real worth of the noble Darcy and the unscrupulous Wickham, Deresiewicz discovers that "what the novel was really showing me was how to grow up."

Similar lessons are drawn from the other novels. "Mansfield Park," for example, taught Deresiewicz about "keeping it real" when, like the heroine, he entered an upper-crust milieu and had his head turned; and "Sense and Sensibility" made him ponder, "How could I have been so blind? I had just had a Marianne-and-Willoughby romance, and it had crashed and burned in no time flat."

Whether these epiphanies are central to our understanding of Jane Austen seems at least questionable, but Deresiewicz's tales are certainly an entertaining and original version of literary criticism — as autobiography.

Rachel Brownstein, who teaches at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, warns us in her introduction that "This book boasts no bright new take on Jane Austen." It seeks instead to discover why we want so much today to read Austen (or, at least, to watch movies about her novels), and it doesn't take long to establish the reason: because in these complicated times, we seek to return to the cozy (if rather "sexed-up") "known world" of the novels, whether or not that was what Jane Austen had in mind for us when she wrote them.

In her approach, as well as in her fondness for Austen, Brownstein echoes aspects of Deresiewicz's approach. The Brownstein book is also, in large part, Brownstein's own memoir as a scholar, teacher and Austen fan, with anecdotes about trips to "Jane Austen Country" in Hampshire or to a Jane Austen Society meeting in New York, and the first time she noticed a certain witty interchange in "Pride and Prejudice." And along the way, the reader, too, may discover in Brownstein's book what the author discovers in Austen: a means of transporting ourselves to a more gracious and better-ordered world.

Melinda Bargreen (www.melindabargreen.com) is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She also reviews concerts for Classical KING (98.1 FM).

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