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.

 

Further, Kantor distills from Jane Austen a sophisticated understanding of the complementarity of the sexes. If women more than men obsess over relationships and ponder their emotional complexities, this is not to be despised as a weakness but rather valued and cultivated as their special expertise. They have “a bigger skill set” than men for maneuvering through relationships, Kantor says, and they “do a better job of seeing the end game.” As the still-arrogant Mr. Darcy mordantly perceived, “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.” 

By contrast, says Kantor, “men’s default setting is to live in the moment,” with commitment some considerable distance from their mind. Kantor rehearses eight case studies from the novels of men afraid of commitment. Must woman then entrap her prey? Must she scheme to compel the man’s submission to her will? Not at all, says Kantor, noting that “the woman who acts like that in Jane Austen is a villainess, not a heroine. Lady Susan Vernon [for example] uses her typically female verbal virtuosity to manipulate men” and take unfair advantage. The heroines use their powers not for evil, but for good.

It is, after all, not only women who are made happy by successful love, realized in marriage and family. This is also the path of lasting satisfaction for most men. Jane Austen, Kantor says, “teaches women to apply our talent for relationships to figure out how both sexes can avoid the pitfalls our weaknesses expose us to. She shows how men and women can transcend our limitations to meet each other in a place where we’ll both be happy.”

If this sounds a little abstract, Kantor ends with an eminently practical discussion of dating strategies for those who disdain the hookup culture, as Jane would. Two very different alternatives to bars and parties for broadening your acquaintance, she suggests, are church and Internet dating. In the first, you stand to encounter a higher than average concentration of people who consciously value marriage and who assume two people begin a relationship by getting to know each other. And the second, unlikely though it may seem, allows for Austen-like deliberateness and pacing. It invites you to ponder which qualities you have to offer and which you’re looking for.

This delightful book is meant for a particular audience: Jane Austen enthusiasts who are also dissatisfied with contemporary courtship mores and intrigued by the idea that the creator of Elizabeth Bennet has something to teach anyone whose private life resembles that of Bridget Jones. It is for capable readers undeterred by 81 pages of footnotes—and receptive to self-help hints at the end of every chapter under headings like “Adopt an Austen attitude” and “What would Jane do?” It is for singles wanting to get better at managing their hopes for happiness, and for any mother or grandmother, aunt or friend, who might be called upon to counsel such. Written in a voice that neither scolds nor preaches, but is in equal measure graceful, inventive, and wise, it is an original contribution to the counterculture dedicated to shoring up marriage.

Claudia Anderson is managing editor of The Weekly Standard.