The Magazine

Austen’s Power

The novelist’s advice to ‘recovering Romantics.’

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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For decades now, media marketers and content producers have been milking the Jane Austen craze, first with fine dramatizations of the novels themselves for small and large screen, then with a vast bazaar of knockoffs—sequels by the score (Letters from Pemberley: The First Year, Captain Wentworth’s Diary), modern adaptations (Emma as Valley Girl in the movie Clueless), and even exotica introducing zombies and sea monsters into the Austen genre. What on earth is the appeal?

Felicity Jones as Catherine Moreland, 'Northanger Abbey,' 2007

Felicity Jones as Catherine Moreland, ‘Northanger Abbey,’ 2007

ITV Productions / WGBH

Elizabeth Kantor has taken the trouble to think through a serious answer—to wit, Jane Austen “is the cure” for our modern disillusionment about happiness in marriage. Specifically, what keeps us coming back for more is the dignity, elegance, and sheer competence of the Austen heroine’s pursuit of happy love. A literary scholar steeped in Jane Austen’s fiction and letters, but also a happily married wife and mother, Kantor has distilled the essentials of that competence and presents them in this most engaging guide.

It is a guide for “recovering Romantics.” For to learn from Jane Austen (1775-1817), flower of the English Enlightenment, the modern woman must unlearn bad habits encouraged by our coarser culture of love. She must shed the Romantic’s quest for the unique soulmate, and the Romantic’s morbid fascination with emotional intensity, psychodrama, and the broken heart. She must spurn the manipulative program of The Rules, along with the jaded condescension toward men so casually indulged in by women postliberation. The antidote to all these is Enlightenment realism.

Realism first about human nature. A rector’s daughter who lived her whole life in a succession of Anglican parsonages, Jane Austen, Kantor notes, was “never shocked (though often amused) by folly and vice.” She knew that these are the common lot of men and women, and her most captivating characters of both sexes are people who come to recognize their own folly—their pride and their prejudice—and, humbled, learn to see and think a truer way. As they grow in self-knowledge, they strive for a clear-eyed balance, and for charity, in their judgments of others.

Realism, too, about the quest for a mate. Jane was writing at a cultural moment when the arranged marriage was no longer universal and the idea of the love match was in vogue. Her heroines choose for themselves, with minimal interference from (often absent or inadequate) parents. The ones who choose well do so by pacing themselves, not allowing their feelings to outrun the attractive man’s interest, while they study his character. Inevitably, complications arise—and present further opportunities for discovering what the man is really like. During this phase of courtship, the Austen heroine offers no “unsolicited proofs of tenderness,” but waits—fully aware that he may never make a move.

Jane Austen supplies plenty of counterexamples—giddy Lydia Bennet, who, far from pacing herself, runs off at 16 with the dashing seducer Wickham; the vain and scheming Maria Bertram, who “marries a man she doesn’t love to spite the one who doesn’t love her”; most memorably, Charlotte Lucas, hitched for the sake of security to the preposterous Mr. Collins, a wife who spends her days avoiding her husband—just to name three. 

Austen also provides her modern readers with what Kantor calls a “forgotten vocabulary” for choosing the right man. In sizing up someone who attracts you, consider his principles, probably rooted in his religion. And consider his temper. After all, you want a man of quality, not one who’s good for you, Kantor says, but one who’s good. Does he display justice and right conduct, which everyone respects, and delicacy toward the feelings of other people? Does he show forbearance toward others’ shortcomings? Is his self-command reliable, or does he let it all hang out, imposing on others as he goes? Are his affections warm? Does he, like Jane’s heroes, have sense, understanding, and judgment? Does he show taste and talent and improve himself by education?

As Kantor reminds her reader, “What you get, if your love is successful, is essentially the other person,” with all his strengths and limitations. The pacing that she and Jane stress is a way of warding off premature emotional involvement while you’re still learning who he really is and what his intentions are. Remember, you may capture a man’s admiration without his attachment. Jane’s heroines strive to keep their heads even when they’re falling in love.