Elizabeth Kantor, author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After , thinks that chick lit and romantic comedies, where bitching about men and soppy romance prevail, have provided poor examples for coping with modern relationships. Her book shows us how to use Jane Austen’s heroines as role models instead. So, in an attempt to find my “Happily Ever After”, I’m swapping Sex and the City for Sense and Sensibility, and attempting to mimic the behaviour of a Jane Austen heroine by making Kantor’s book my bible.
Although she got little recognition in her lifetime, Austen has become one of our most popular authors. As Claire Harman says in her book, Jane’s Fame, Austen has “conquered the world”. But what can a series of books written more than 200 years ago have to teach us that’s relevant for women today? Quite a lot, says Kantor. “Human nature hasn’t changed all that much,” she says. “That includes male and female psychology and relationship dynamics – we still have to work with people we don’t find congenial. [These are] things Jane Austen was so smart about, that modern women seem to have trouble with.”
On Twitter, I ask if anyone has applied Austen’s morals to their own lives. Rose Keen tells me: “I have always found ‘Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!’ [a quote from Love and Friendship] to be excellent advice.” Another tweet tells me she actually quoted Austen during a break-up with a boyfriend of three years, telling him: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” So it seems there really is something about Austen that speaks to modern women.
Kantor’s advice sounds sensible, but a little unromantic. “Jane was not a romantic, she was a realist,” says Marilyn Joice, a member of the northern branch of the Jane Austen Appreciation Society. During a talk in the genteel, Austenesque surroundings of Harrogate library, Joice explains that the author’s experiences shaped her writing. Austen once rejected a proposal from someone she found repellent, but who would have offered financial security, but she also let a potential romance die out because he wasn’t wealthy enough to support her. “She would want to marry for love, but she wouldn’t marry without money,” says Joice. Could it be that Austen was trying to justify her own decisions in her books, rather than guide readers’ behaviour? I’m not sure it’s right to follow her example if this is the case, and besides, her logic applies to a time when women needed to rely on men for financial security.
To make me think more like an Austen heroine, Kantor recommends I examine my conduct at bedtimes. I read one of Austen’s prayers: “Have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being?” she writes, “Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.” Looking back over the day, I see I don’t act in an Austen-approved manner at all. I consistently show aspects of Pride and Vanity at work, plus Control Issues and a Hint Of Paranoia. Being an Austen heroine certainly isn’t easy. Kantor agrees. “They hold themselves to a very high standard. They are really stellar people.”
I still don’t see how it leads to the Happily Ever After. Kantor explains that it’s important to practise getting on with people, even those we would rather avoid, such as annoying neighbours and difficult work colleagues. “I think the more we practice delicacy to the feelings of other people, the more we develop those mental muscles that enable us in a romantic relationship to have forbearance,” she explains.