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
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s growing community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

Members have made 58 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  1. Profile photo of Fredösphere Member

    And zombies. You forgot to mention the zombies.

    (Welcome, Elizabeth!)

    • #1
    • April 1, 2012 at 10:51 am
  2. Profile photo of starnescl Member

    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.

    • #2
    • April 1, 2012 at 10:53 am
  3. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

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

    • #3
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am
  4. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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?

    • #4
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:07 am
  5. Profile photo of J. D. Fitzpatrick Member

    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. 

    • #5
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:12 am
  6. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member

    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.

    • #6
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:20 am
  7. Profile photo of Roberto Member

    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.

    • #7
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:21 am
  8. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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.

    • #8
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am
  9. Profile photo of Schrodinger's Cat Inactive

    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.

    • #9
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:33 am
  10. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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.

    • #10
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:34 am
  11. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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.

    • #11
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:51 am
  12. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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.

    • #12
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:56 am
  13. Profile photo of Schoolmarm Member

    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.”

    • #13
    • April 1, 2012 at 11:59 am
  14. Profile photo of Nanda Panjandrum Inactive
    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.)

    • #14
    • April 2, 2012 at 1:43 am
  15. Profile photo of J. D. Fitzpatrick Member

    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. 😀 … the parents better pay my credit card off before spring break … I am, like, totally hooking up with someone else this weekend …

    • #15
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:05 am
  16. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive

    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.

    • #16
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:09 am
  17. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive

    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.

    • #17
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:21 am
  18. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author
    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.

    • #18
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:26 am
  19. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author
    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. 😀 … 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.

    • #19
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:34 am
  20. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    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
    • #20
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:38 am
  21. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    Hmm. Okay, let me try to meet you, metaphor. for metaphor. Seems to me she represents the full flowering of an improving trend in relationships, love, & family life with really deep roots, one that had been going on for hundreds of years before her time. Sure, some things have wilted since then b/c of some random hacking at the growth. But I think Jane Austen was connected to the tap root–& can help us be, too.

    Tom Lindholtz: So,where did Jane Austen’s values and attitudes come from? Where were their roots? Jane Austen’s values are like a vase full of beautiful, fresh-cut flowers just in from the garden. They are lovely. And they are destined to die because they have no roots.

    Our society is what it is because we are a cut-flower society. We’ve been living off of the nutrients and vitality that were absorbed long ago, but that is now becoming too weak to sustain us. The only hope is that, the cut flowers might root so that they can be re-planted in good soil that will provide on-going nourishment.. But where to get that potting soil?

    • #21
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:49 am
  22. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick: 

    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. 

    …I suspect that few modern women want their daughters to face the limited range of options that Austen’s characters did. 

    I much prefer that any daughter of mine face the range of options in Austen’s books than the range of options today, which are far more limited. Since one always has the option to get out a prior choice, what option does the other party have prevent it? A young woman today may want to get and stay married, but under today’s divorce laws, her husband need only cry, “Irreconcilable differences!” and he can unilaterally end the marriage.

    Furthermore, many options are hardly available anymore. A woman today may want to find a man who understands the importance of waiting until marriage to have relations, but she won’t find any candidate (unless she wants to join a serious religious community). And, increasingly, a woman today will have trouble finding a man who understands the importance of marriage at all.

    • #22
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:49 am
  23. Profile photo of Madcap Inactive

    I’m 23, married two years. I was a new grad; he was still in college. Main insight: my god, how did I make it through the current dating scene and come out happily married the other end?

    Let’s recap:

    1. Outside of work or classes, it’s very hard to meet young men in a situation where there isn’t some kind of sexual expectation and/or lots of alcohol. If I hadn’t met my husband on a setup, I have no idea how I ever would have met someone, being rather shy.

    2. Once a man is interested in you, it’s hard to demand a permanent commitment. (My solution: I married a Chinese guy, who’s from a culture where marriage is still completely normative.)

    3. Early marriage receives absolutely no cultural support, and therefore you will have people constantly telling you what you did was a terrible idea and you WILL have no friends who are going through the same thing.

    • #23
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:50 am
  24. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    Very interesting comment! There’s actually a section of the book where I look into what would happen between Marianne & Willoughby under modern conditions.

    I much prefer that any daughter of mine face the range of options in Austen’s books than the range of options today, which are farmorelimited. Since one always have the option to get out a prior choice, what option does the other party have prevent it? A young woman today may want to get and stay married, but under today’s divorce laws, her husband need only cry, “Irreconcilable differences!” and he can unilaterally end the marriage.

    Furthermore, many options are hardly available anymore. A woman today may want to find a man who understands the importance of waiting until marriage to have relations, but she won’t find any candidate (unless she wants to join a serious religious community). And, increasingly, a woman today will have trouble finding a man who understands the importance of marriage at all. · 2 minutes ago

    • #24
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:55 am
  25. Profile photo of Pseudodionysius Inactive

    Jane Austen has an implicit Aristotelian understanding of human nature and ethics. The late Indiana philosopher Henry Babcock Veatch captured this very well in his wonderfully understated book Rational Man – A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics which was written as a counterpoint to William Barrett’s Irrational Man, which covered existentialism as it hit America with full force.

    Readers of this thread who are hesitant about Austen and what all the fuss is about may find Veatch’s book a convenient entry point.

    • #25
    • April 2, 2012 at 2:55 am
  26. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive

    (continuing)

    And here are the social “options” available to a young woman sent off to (a non-religious) college – which are enforced by a near uniformity of practice and opinion:

    • Meet men (boys, really) at parties or in group events rather than on dates;
    • Dress suggestively;
    • Meet with a boy you like no more than a few times before sleeping with him;
    • Don’t expect he’ll be more likely to consider himself in love because he slept with you (and heaven forbid he think of marriage; that would be downright laughable);
    • If you end up pregnant, just do away with the unborn child.

    There are exceptions, of course. There are those who meet the first week of freshman year and stay together through college and then get married – but they probably won’t put off relations, and it almost always takes years before they decide on marriage. On the other side are many more who have long-term “relationships” during their college years and then break up.

    There’s not much room at college for women who are interested in serious options.

    • #26
    • April 2, 2012 at 3:00 am
  27. Profile photo of Elizabeth Kantor Contributor
    Elizabeth Kantor Post author

    Fascinating. Just anecdotally, I can definitely see a trend toward earlier marriage among those twenty-somethings who (mostly for religious reasons–but some for commonsense reasons) reject the hookup culture. There’s a chapter in the book exploring how women can actually make their social lives more like those Regency assembly balls.

    Madcap: I’m 23, married two years. I was a new grad; he was still in college. Main insight: my god, how did I make it through the current dating scene and come out happily married the other end?

    Let’s recap:

    1. Outside of work or classes, it’s very hard to meet young men in a situation where there isn’t some kind of sexual expectation and/or lots of alcohol. If I hadn’t met my husband on a setup, I have no idea how I ever would have met someone, being rather shy.

    2. Once a man is interested in you, it’s hard to demand a permanent commitment. (My solution: I married a Chinese guy, who’s from a culture where marriage is still completely normative.)

    3. Early marriage receives absolutely no cultural support. . . .

    • #27
    • April 2, 2012 at 3:01 am
  28. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive
    Elizabeth Kantor: Very interesting comment! There’s actually a section of the book where I look into what would happen between Marianne & Willoughby under modern conditions.

    I shudder to think!

    • #28
    • April 2, 2012 at 3:07 am
  29. Profile photo of EThompson Inactive
    Elizabeth Kantor:

    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.

    You’ve made an excellent point that may indeed explain the continued popularity of Masterpiece Theatre, particularly the smash hit series Downton Abbey. My cousin (the host of MT) would agree with you as well. 

    I look forward to your contributions this week!

    • #29
    • April 2, 2012 at 4:22 am
  30. Profile photo of Leporello Inactive
    Crow’s Nest: 

    The goal is less to get the young to model their every action on Anne Elliot or Capt. Wentworth, but instead to educate and ennoble the tastes and the postures of young men and women in their mutual relations through some exposure to this view of things.

    Seeing the world through the slow, careful, delicate, and deliberate eyes of Ms. Austen, our young today might set about in some small way turning against what they see around them in dissatisfaction and toward something which in some small way imitates Austen. They might begin to register more disgust with what our culture bombards them with. And disgust, after all, is a far broader and sturdier foundation on which to build than is reason, which is necessarily more precarious because it is less broadly distributed. · 4 hours ago

    Very, very well put.

    • #30
    • April 2, 2012 at 4:58 am
  1. 1
  2. 2