The first lesson Jane Austen can teach modern women (women especially, but it wouldn't hurt men to listen too): when it comes to love, aim for happiness.
Isn't that obvious? Doesn't everybody want to be happy?
Sure, just like we all want to be thin. But we want a lot of other things, too, like 20-oz. sodas.
Jane Austen shows us heroines who end up with the perfect happy endings we want--think Elizabeth Bennet with Mr. Darcy. But she also shows us women who miss out because they're pursuing other things. Lydia Bennet has such a "rage for admiration" that she pursues male attention without giving long-term consequences a second thought. Charlotte Lucas is willing to marry the embarrassing Mr. Collins for financial security. And Marianne Dashwood, the only Jane Austen heroine who misses out on a really happy ending, loses the love of her life because she's too busy having a Romantic adventure to see clearly what the guy is really up to.
Do women still miss happiness for these reasons? Unfortunately, more than ever. Think about the difference between a seventeen-year-old girl in 1812 reading Sense and Sensibility and a seventeen-year-old girl in 2012 reading our girls' and women's magazines. A twenty-first-century teenager who's looking forward to her "first time" simply isn't aiming for happily ever after in her love life. She's a lot like Marianne, just looking forward to an adventure.
So what's wrong with adventure? Nothing. Security and male attention are great things too. So are status and pleasure. But it's not savvy to put any of those things before happiness.
Jane Austen fully expected her readers to model their "conduct" on her novels. The impulse that readers have to imitate what they read is a major theme of her books. Yielding to that impulse in the case of her own novels could be really smart.
Okay, who agrees or disagrees: Could recalibrating to aim for happiness really change the trajectory of some women's lives?