illustration by Brianna AshbyIt is 1961 in a suburb of London. In this suburb there is a school, made of weather-beaten brick with classrooms painted white or in various pastels. In this school young girls, hardly over seventeen, dressed uniformly in white button-downs, knee socks, gray blazers, and neckties, learn how to be proper women.
We first see Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) walking home from school during a light snowfall. She glances up at a point just above the camera in a tired, off-handed way. She sighs, as if she can’t quite put her finger on what she expects to find in the sky. Jenny is sixteen years old.
When I was seventeen, I found a pre-viewed copy of An Education at a Blockbuster closeout sale. I had recently reconnected with a boy I had been in love with for years. Every time we got in touch, it was the same, though I desperately hoped it would be different: he’d tell me he still loved and cared about me, and admit that he couldn’t believe he’d let me go again. I was seventeen, and in love with an idea. I just didn’t know it yet.
I had vaguely heard of the movie and was intrigued by the cover—Carey Mulligan, chicly dressed and done up, lying on the ground with Peter Sarsgaard, holding on to him carelessly with one hand, cheek-to-cheek. Next to him, she looks terribly young. The back cover asked, “Will she let this affair ruin her dreams of attending Oxford, as her headmistress fears?” It was all I needed to read; Jenny and I were both likely to make mistakes regarding the men we loved, but I would be able to watch her mistakes and perhaps learn from them. Right?
When she first meets David, Jenny is standing outside in the rain, demurely holding her cello upright. A man in a maroon sports car pulls up alongside Jenny and offers to drive her cello home for her while she walks alongside the car. A self-proclaimed “music lover,” David even offers her money for the cello so she doesn’t think he’ll steal it. Jenny is, of course, instantly charmed. So charmed, in fact, that when she sees him on the street a few days later in the company of her friends, whose names we never learn, she approaches him and lands herself a date, to a chorus of schoolgirl giggles.
Now that she’s met David, Jenny’s world takes on a purple glow, much like the one adorning the jazz club they visit that first night. She meets Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), friends of David’s. We later learn that Danny and David are “business partners” – “buying and selling, this and that.” These three glamorous characters assure Jenny that she fits right in with their crowd, and that she would fit like a glove in the city of Paris, a place she dreams of almost constantly. And despite the number of warning signs, Jenny’s got that wide-eyed look of young people who encounter elders who “understand them” and consequently think, what they’re saying about me must be true.
Jenny’s parents are taken with David from the start—at least, the clever, intelligent, and charming version he presents to them. Under the guise of going to visit “his old English professor, Clive Lewis” at Oxford, David sways them into allowing Jenny to go away with him for the weekend. It’s during this trip that she discovers the true nature of his “business partnership” with Danny; they steal art and sell it for good deals of money. Jenny is unsettled, and nearly walks away from the situation, but David draws her back in by convincing her that weekends filled with concerts and fine restaurants are a far superior alternative to “doing Latin homework.”
Jenny’s first words in the film are in response to a question from her English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), which we do not hear: “Is it because Mr. Rochester’s blind?” Miss Stubbs and the headmistress (Emma Thompson) both question Jenny’s relationship with David and try to instruct her, gently at first and more desperately later, as her grades slip and her arrogance grows. Jenny responds, “Nobody does anything worth doing with a degree. No woman, anyway.” Perhaps Miss Stubbs asked her class, “Why does Mr. Rochester initially refuse Jane’s help?” Why does Jenny refuse to acknowledge those who question her relationship with David? Because she’s blind—it’s not difficult for her to seek validation from the people who already support her.
Jenny ends her discourse with her professor by stating, “It’s not enough to educate us anymore…You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Here, Jenny is unwittingly trying to be proven wrong. She is trading the possibility of Oxford for the possibility of a cultured life, free of responsibilities, and she knows intellectually that this is wrong.
I couldn’t help but root for her to see this as clearly as I did.
That summer, like every summer, he called me. “I need to talk to you,” he said. He asked if he could come over; I gave him my address without a second thought. At the time, I was living in one of the booming suburbs on the outskirts of Denver; he lived closer to the city and needed me to guide him through the winding streets of identical houses. I stood on our small front lawn with my cell phone to my ear. He half-ran to me and lifted me up in an embrace.
My mother’s jaw dropped when she saw him. “Oh my God,” she mouthed to me, her eyes wide. He had grown up—physically, anyway. I smiled at her and nodded. He and I went up to my room. I sat cross-legged on my bed and listened intently to his concerns about going into the military, about his family life, about losing me. I eagerly offered whatever comforts I could; I let him kiss me and put his head on my shoulder. He spoke as though he was lost, starving for human contact. After he left that evening, denying my mother’s offer of dinner, he didn’t answer my texts or calls for weeks. I looked him up on Facebook and saw that he had a girlfriend. There were several pictures of them, smiling back at me on the screen—all white teeth and laughing eyes—dating back to mere days after I had seen him last. I immediately sent him a message telling him to never contact me again, for any reason. For years, my mother would ask me, “Whatever happened to him? He was so good-looking. And really polite, too.”
When David asks Jenny to marry him, she accepts only after trying to gauge her parents’ reactions. They’re stunned that David has proposed, but nonetheless happy, and Jenny bluntly says, “This is where you’re supposed to ask me, ‘What about Oxford?’” Her father says, “Well, there may be no reason for you to go now, is there?” When I first watched this movie, my face fell when he said this. It still does. What about Oxford? What about her education? Jenny is surrounded by characters as blind as she is.
Jenny finds out that David is married purely by accident. Soon after the proposal, David takes her and her parents out to dinner. In the car, she shuffles through the glove compartment for a cigarette and, finding none, sees a pile of mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman.” It’s when he leaves without explaining himself to her parents that she truly realizes she’s on her own.
Rather than going to pieces, Jenny takes it upon herself to remedy the damage she’s done. She goes back to her headmistress and asks apologetically for re-admission; she is promptly denied. To Miss Stubbs’ utter relief, Jenny asks her for help. She accuses Danny and Helen of not telling her that David was married; she accuses her father of encouraging her to “throw her life away.” She goes to David’s house, running into his wife before she has made the conscious decision to ring the bell, and learns she isn’t the first one that he’s duped. She returns to school and repeats her last year. She paces her room, night and day, a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other, brow furrowed in concentration. She is sitting at the breakfast table with her parents when she receives her Oxford acceptance letter.
I was seventeen when I first saw An Education, in love with the idea of a boy coming to the realization that I had been there for him all along. It’s the wish of anyone in an unrequited love, because unrequited love involves a delusion. I have a chance to be the hero in someone else’s life. I took this chance several times. I learned that it’s not your responsibility to be someone else’s hero, but it is your responsibility to know your own limitations and strengths. Only once I realized this did I learn the difference between loving an idea and loving an actual human being with flaws. Jenny loved the idea of a cultured life, not David himself. She loved that he could offer her such a life. What she had on her side all along was the very real and tangible possibility of Oxford, a possibility that she could, and did, turn into reality.
I watched An Education to learn from Jenny’s mistakes. I didn’t learn from them right away because, in the back of my mind, I thought that the only way to learn was through experience itself. What I failed to realize, though, was that I’d had the experience already, several times over, each time coming up short and preparing myself for another go-round. I thought this was heroic, when really it was nothing but blind faith in someone who never deserved it.
Where Jenny’s courage really lies is in her willingness to admit to having made the wrong decisions, and to rectify them. We don’t have to go out and fall in love with a man while ignoring his faults to learn what a broken heart is. Why seek out that pain? We cling to the “what if” in the face of what we know to be wrong, but if we can reach the notion that what we’re doing goes against what we know to be true – for Jenny, that was Oxford – then we must take a step back. We must decide just how much of an education we really want.
Taylor Hine is a writer living in Asheville. She is a regular contributor to This Recording.