Jane Austen, We Need You Now!

Good news! “U.S. marriage rate stable”–researchers report that 56% of men and 52% of women are still married twenty years into their first marriages.

Don’t feel like breaking out the champagne? Wondering whether our expectations for long-term happiness in relationships can possibly go any lower?

There’s good reason to worry. It’s not just the hard data about divorce, or about how fewer and fewer people are even attempting long-term commitment in the first place.

There are also all the firsthand accounts–overwhelmingly by women, though men are frustrated too—-of how nearly impossible it seems to be, to get what we want out of relationships.

We have brilliant social scientists explaining the breakdown of marriage and brilliant cultural commentators warning about the toxic mess that modern relationships often descend into. But where can we go for a viable alternative?

May I suggest?–Jane Austen. The list of what she has to offer modern men and (especially) women practically writes itself. I’ll start, but please jump into the conversation!

What we find in Jane Austen, that’s too often missing from real life today:

  • Love lives with dignity, instead of humiliation–Emma and Lizzy make mistakes, but it’s all on a higher plane, somehow

  • An aesthetic of elegance, not hotness
  • Keen (and mostly forgotten)  insights into male and female psychology
  • “Rules,” not for manipulating the opposite sex but for getting just close enough to the other person to know whether he’s the one for you–without getting so close you completely lose your perspective
  • Happily ever after as a live option
  1. Fredösphere

    And zombies. You forgot to mention the zombies.

    (Welcome, Elizabeth!)

  2. Charles Starnes

    My goodness this isn’t my bag.  I’m going to willfully withhold from offering my opinions – at least for a bit. 

    I can’t wait to follow this conversation.  I’m 42 and nine years happily married.  It could be myopia, but I truly think my cohort got to experience another world growing up and then the changes born of the 60s firmly took hold in relational and family dynamics.

    I’m not sure we’ve fully reckoned with the impact.

  3. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    Oh no! How could I forget to mention the zombies???!!!!

  4. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    But Charles (and please call me Elizabeth!), if you’ve been happily married for only nine years, you must have managed to thread your way through the post-60s craziness somehow. Care to share any insights?

    Or, putting it another way, can you point to what was it about the other world you got to experience growing up that you think prepared you to do better than younger people?

  5. J. D. Fitzpatrick

    Reread the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice.  Austen shows her fair share of marriages in which at least one spouse is repenting at leisure.

    Such marriages were kept together by laws prohibiting divorce, of course. I wonder, though, if the laws preventing women from inheriting property also gave men a sense of obligation to care for women financially. 

    The desire to romanticize Jane Austen’s fiction is understandable, but I suspect that few modern women want their daughters to face the limited range of options that Austen’s characters did. 

  6. Crow

    Elizabeth: welcome aboard. I agree wholeheartedly–but I may be biased; I regard Austen as the greatest English novelist.

    Nevertheless, from the distance of some years, I’ve had occasion to look back and assess some of the misguided choices some of my Junior and Senior high school teachers made in assigning certain works to certain ages. 

    With regard to Austen, I’m not sure that the average teenage boy is ready for her–that is, I think reading her too early for them would be a detriment and ruin the experience–they should be directed to other literature that better suits their character formation at this stage.

    By contrast, for young women, I think that the high school age is probably the perfect age to first be introduced to Austen and that they would profit greatly from reading her at this age. 

    Perhaps you’d be willing to offer a word or two as someone who’s had experience teaching English lit.

  7. Roberto

    Some time ago reflecting on my two favorite Austen creations ( Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice ) it occurred to how impossible it would be for a youth today to relate to them in any fashion. The mores, the motivations driving the dramatis personae are as foreign to current Western Civilization as any alien in a science fiction novel would be.

    Not a pleasant realization.

  8. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    Crow’s Nest,

    Sense and Sensibility went over quite well with the college freshmen I taught, both male & female, but I can see it might be tricky with high school boys.

  9. Schrodinger

    Bona Fides: 18 years of marriage (my one and only). Born in 1951 into a traditional WASP family. Parents fought a lot but never divorced.

    My advice, remember marriage is a covenant! A covenant is stronger than a contract. Always, keep your promises, whether or not he/she doesn’t. Being faithful, even in little things, builds trust and trust is the foundation of marriage.

    Try to avoid the blame game. If you don’t like something he/she has done, don’t use phrases like “You made me feel” or “You did X”. Talk about your experience, eg. “It hurts when” or “I don’t like it when”. 

    Be willing to listen. Listen when you don’t want to. Listen when it hurts. Listen without judgement. Listen without anger (most difficult). Make it safe for him/her to express feelings.

    Most importantly, learn to forgive! You will hurt and be hurt, mostly inadvertently, sometimes deliberately. Either way, express your pain, then let it go and forgive.

    I’m still learning to do all this. Be patient with yourself and him/her.

  10. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    Roberto,

    I see what you mean, but notice how much everyone (including a lot of high school girls) loves the movies. I think people glimpse something there that we don’t have–the point of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After is showing how we actually can have some of those things ourselves, today, if we’re willing to listen to Jane Austen.

  11. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    J.D.,

    Jane Austen does take pains to show us just how awful marriage can be if you marry the wrong person. Not just the Bennets–look at Mr. and Mrs. Price living in squalor long after all their passion is long spent, or think of poor Lady Elliot or Mrs. Tilney, before they died.

    Jane Austen’s solution to the fact that a bad marriage can ruin your life was to be careful to marry the right person.

    Options for women were actually becoming less limited in Jane Austen’s day–that’s why it’s so important for her heroines to be savvy about men–they, not their parents, are going to be choosing their husbands, and they don’t want to make the kind of mistake that Mr. Bennet made, “captivated by youth and beauty.” 

    It’s not romanticizing Jane Austen’s fiction to hold up her happy matches as a model for modern women–the prudence her heroines exercise is even much more necessary today, given the options we have.

  12. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    J.D. still–Of course it was ghastly to be tied to life to a person you couldn’t love and respect. And horrible to be a “ruined woman.” But it’s not like modern women are all in clover. It’s also pretty miserable to be sharing custody with a hostile ex-husband, or to have lived with a guy for five years only to figure out that he’s never going to be ready to commit. What Jane Austen has to offer is insights that could help modern women avoid pretty much every kind of bad result in love.

  13. Schoolmarm

    While I’m happy my daughter is not constrained by the rigid social constraints of Jane’s day and can “make her own way” if she chooses, she still judges men by whether they live up to certain standards of civility and good manners.  It won’t be easy for any prospective suitor to live up to her requirements that he be “like Mr. Knightley…..but he also needs to like my horse, and own a tractor.”

  14. Nanda Panjandrum

    Miss Austen’s Christian roots – taken as a given in her time – and “rebranded” as “core values” (or terms of a similar ilk) are timeless; especially when well-seasoned by her lightly-barbed humor and irrepressible wit.  Incidentally, Mansfield Park  and Persuasion top my personal “favorites list”.  (I look forward to sharing The Guide  with nieces who epitomize both Emma and Lizzy Bennet – as well as nephews who aspire to Mr. Darcy.)

  15. J. D. Fitzpatrick

    I agree that Austen’s books have important lessons regarding human relationships and marriage–for those of us who are at least 10 years older than Austen’s heroines, and who have mastered the English language to the point where we can appreciate the understated social banter and rich internal monolog of her characters. 

    Here is Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s letter, translated in the idiom of a modern college student (one “not one-and-twenty”, in Elizabeth’s words). 

    This letter is like, so random! Wickham bad? WTF? But he’s so hot! No way! That’s like, totally … wait, what does he mean by “idleness and dissipation”? That could be cool. :D … the parents better pay my credit card off before spring break … I am, like, totally hooking up with someone else this weekend …

  16. Leporello

    Jane Austen remains one of the best-selling classic authors today, and movies of her books are extremely popular.  I think quite a number of folks are aware of at least some of the failings of our current world and deeply interested in her guidance.

  17. Leporello

    As for the assertion that it’s better for women to have more options, I would consider just how degrading many of those options are, and just how much unhappiness they have caused.  

    Because this is a subject better considered at greater length than 200 words.  I would refer all interested to the excellent book, Vindicating the Founders, by Prof. Thomas West.  In the chapter, “Women and the Family,” he provides a thoughtful, concise comparison of the treatment of women and family around the time of our founding to their treatment today.  It becomes much more difficult to dismiss past practices after discovering how poorly some of our current practices compare.

  18. Elizabeth Kantor
    C
    Roberto: Throughout her works the implicit and often explicit motivating behaviour is shame: fear of shame, hiding shameful acts, huge exertions taken to avoid shameful ends. · 2 hours ago

    Would love to discuss, but I’m not sure what kind of thing you’re referring to–is the attempt to hush up Lydia’s non-marital elopement the kind of thing you mean? It seems like the heroines are usually living on a plane where their motivations are more than just fear of exposure. I mean, Elizabeth is quite ashamed that she has misjudged Darcy, but that’s b/c she has high standards about how to do justice to people in your opinion. As honest people still do today, right? Even on sexual matters, shame isn’t completely dead–I mean, everybody is pretty disgusted with Hollywood folks & their sex tapes, or similar. But the reasons Jane Austen heroines have high standards for themselves about sex and everything else seem to me to be more than just shame or fear of exposure.

  19. Elizabeth Kantor
    C
    J. D. Fitzpatrick: I agree that Austen’s books have important lessons regarding human relationships and marriage–for those of us who are at least 10 years older than Austen’s heroines, and who have mastered the English language to the point where we can appreciate the understated social banter and rich internal monolog of her characters. 

    Here is Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s letter, translated in the idiom of a modern college student (one “not one-and-twenty”, in Elizabeth’s words). 

    This letter is like, so random! Wickham bad? WTF? But he’s so hot! No way! That’s like, totally … wait, what does he mean by “idleness and dissipation”? That could be cool. :D … the parents better pay my credit card off before spring break … I am, like, totally hooking up with someone else this weekend …

    21 minutes ago

    Okay, haha. But this is obviously a modern Lydia, not a modern Elizabeth. Don’t write the modern Elizabeth Bennets off–there really are some. And a woman doesn’t have to start off perfect to be one. After all, Elizabeth is taken in by Wickham at first, but she does figure it out.

  20. Elizabeth Kantor
    C

    Thank you! Life is certainly moving at a faster pace. But I think paradoxically social media are bringing us back to a situation where we have a public “character” it’s hard to get away from–in a strange way like Jane Austen’s era. More on that in the book. Must say, not sure I see all those patriarchs as so wise . . .

    Big John: Welcome, Elizabeth (as one of our daughters shares your name).  Speaking of my daughters, they live in a world of instant interaction–texting, social media–which limits their ability to take on the lessons of Jane’s heroines:  to slow down and take a bit of perspective on events, questioning early hypotheses and conclusions, realizing hidden qualities.  Also, as a father I like how Jane’s patriarchs are seemingly ineffectual but ultimately wise.  As I strive to bring about positive impacts in my family’s life, I wish more for wisdom. · 2 hours ago