During my time as Writer in Residence at the House Museum of my great, great, great, great, great aunt Jane Austen (in Chawton, England), I sometimes masqueraded as a steward so I could chat with visitors. I remember a couple who wandered in hand in hand, and when they left, wrote in the visitors' book that they had just gotten engaged. There were parties of school children and pilgrims from around the world (some in period costume). Snippets of conversations stuck in my mind.
"Of course," said a woman in a neat navy blue mac, "we hardly know anything about Jane Austen. She's almost invisible. There are no diaries - very little proper information."
It's true that there are no diaries, but we do have letters, recollections of family members, and most importantly, Jane's novels and juvenilia. Jane often gave her nieces and nephews advice on writing and affairs of the heart. I've tried to capture the spirit of her practical wisdom in my book, Miss Jane Austen's Guide to Modern Life's Dilemmas [Tarcher/Penguin, $16.95].
Jane warned her correspondents not to depend only on her advice, but to trust their own good judgement. Little did she know that people would be turning to her novels and letters for guidance two centuries later. In my book, I aim to give advice based on the principles by which an Austen heroine must learn to live. I used Jane's letters, novels, and what we know of her life, to suggest what she'd have advocated in each situation. The dilemmas in my book are all real ones suggested by friends, family and my students at the University of Southampton. Jane faced some pretty tricky dilemmas of her own. We know that she decided that there was no point in having a Pemberley if it came with a Mr. Rushworth or a Mr. Collins instead of a Mr. Darcy. Here are nine lessons in love as taught by Jane Austen.
First impressions are very often wrong. Elizabeth Bennet was initially charmed by that cad, Wickham, and “had no very cordial feelings towards” Mr. Darcy. Her parents’ unhappy marriage resulted from her father being captivated by her mother’s “youth and beauty, and that appearance of good-humour which youth and beauty generally give.” Marianne Dashwood was swept off her feet by Willoughby in <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>, but found true happiness with Colonel Brandon whom she’d first dismissed as "an absolute old bachelor." You can save yourself a lot of heartache if you don’t judge by appearances or instantly accept what people say about themselves.
Maria Bertram in <em>Mansfield Park</em> accepts Mr. Rushworth’s proposal because he’s rich and seems to be the only prospect on her horizon. Big mistake. If she’d waited she might have found happiness. She ends up divorced, disgraced and condemned to live with her horrible Aunt Norris. Similarly, <em>Pride & Prejudice</em>’s Elizabeth Bennet is horrified when her best friend, Charlotte, agrees to marry Mr. Collins. Lizzy visits the newlyweds and observes that Charlotte’s "home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry... had not yet lost their charms." (Note the "not yet.") Jane Austen herself turned down her awkward suitor, Harris Bigg-Wither, who would have given her a beautiful home and financial security. It's better to remain single and in want of a fortune than to be an unhappy wife.
If you think you have found The One but that the timing just isn’t right, don’t give up. True love is patient and will survive distances and difficulties. Anne Elliot in <em>Persuasion</em> turns down Frederick Wentworth because she doesn’t know when they will be able to marry - she almost loses him forever. In <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>, Elinor Dashwood’s love for Edward Ferrars endures until he is free to marry her. Jane’s own sister, Cassandra, became engaged Tom Fowle, even though they couldn’t afford to settle down. He became a ship’s chaplain, aiming to earn enough to support a wife, but died of yellow fever on a voyage to the Caribbean. Should Cassandra have committed herself to him? Absolutely.
A hero or heroine will not try to move too fast. Catherine Morland in <em>Northanger Abbey</em> is open and friendly, and Henry Tilney falls for her. She doesn’t try to play games or throw herself at him. Anybody worth marrying would run a mile from somebody like Catherine’s false friend, Isabella Thorpe, who pursues men around Bath. But beware of being too shy. Jane Bennet almost loses Mr. Bingley by being so reserved. He has to know that her feelings for him are more than lukewarm. Similarly, you must be sure to show what Mr. Darcy called “symptoms of peculiar regard.” Don’t embarrass yourself or act out of character, but ensure that he or she can see that you really care.
Sometimes a hero and heroine will be close in age, but Jane knew that happy marriages could arise from unlikely pairings. Her own brother, Henry, and glamorous French cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, were an excellent example. It was the second time around for Eliza, whose first husband had been guillotined. She also happened to be ten years older than Henry. <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>’s Marianne Dashwood dismisses Colonel Brandon for talking about flannel waistcoats, which are “invariably connected with the aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble," but she later falls in love with him. Emma, meanwhile, loses her heart to Mr. Knightley, who is roughly 17 years older than her.
Don’t just look at the carriage; look at the way it’s driven. Boorish John Thorpe drives a gig. Willoughby is richer than John Thorpe, so drives a curricle. However, they both drive at top speed and endanger their female passengers’ lives and reputations. Steer clear of any reckless, inconsiderate drivers like them. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Mr. Knightley from <em>Emma</em>, who uses his carriage to help his neighbors. Then there is <em>Northanger Abbey</em>’s Henry Tilney, the perfect driver. Catherine Morland finds that “to be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world.”
Don’t try too hard to please the opposite sex. Don’t wear purple unless it suits you. The horrible Isabella Thorpe from <em>Northanger Abbey</em> writes to Catherine Morland, revealing her determination to catch a husband: “I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter — it is your dear brother’s favourite colour.” In this same novel, Jane tells us that “it would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire.”
Jane Austen’s novels are full of embarrassing relatives, but the lesson is that a hero or heroine will love you, however appalling your family might be. Mr. Darcy proves himself to be devoted to Elizabeth Bennet when he intervenes to rescue Lydia. He’s polite to Lizzy’s mother and will put up with her father, who “delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected.” Captain Wentworth’s love for Anne Elliot in Persuasion means that he can stand to have Sir Walter as a father-in-law. And <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>’s Elinor Dashwood will endure the horrible Ferrars family for the sake of Edward.
Jane Austen knew that happiness shouldn’t depend on marrying a hero. She knew what it was like to fall in love, but the most important and sustaining relationships she had were with her sister, female friends, and select nieces and brothers. Jane loved life. It didn’t matter what she was doing - writing, visiting London, swimming in the sea, walking in the countryside... She didn’t let the pursuit of love dominate her existence, and nor do her heroines. In <em>Northanger Abbey</em>, Catherine Morland won’t be persuaded to pine for a man she may never meet again – she has a good book: “I do not pretend to say that I was not very much pleased with him; but while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable.”