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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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.