Did Jane Austen really mean to give us relationship advice?
I had not read more than ten pages of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After before I realized that I was clearly not its target audience. This is a book written by a woman for women. The introduction is entitled “What do women really want from Jane Austen?” Often, it is written in the first person for women, e.g. Chapter 13, “Are We the Weaker Sex, After All?”
As a male, I was clearly an interloper. At various points in my reading I had the impression that men were perceived as the enemy, the opponent, the prey or the goal. However, there is something to be said for reading something that is outside of your comfort zone or from a totally different perspective. Most importantly, any book such as this gives new insights into Jane Austen and her writings. I have read books which portray Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s viewpoint, or which focus on Mr. Collins, or one which speculated that many of Jane Austen’s characters suffered from autism. All of them gave me a new appreciation of Jane’s writings.
This is the type of book that would result if an Austen scholar such as R. W. Chapman collaborated with Dear Abby. The book is essentially advice on dating and marriage using Jane Austen’s work as the basis. In many ways this is proper, because the fundamentals don’t change. Men and women may now communicate by cell phones, text messages and email rather than the much more formalized minuet of introductions and chaperoned meetings as in Jane Austen’s time. Other than that, most things haven’t changed. One practice has changed, however, but I didn’t fully realize it. In Jane Austen’s day, if a gentleman said “I love you” to a woman, it was also followed by “and I want to marry you,” or at least that was taken for granted in Regency England.
The Guide is chock full of references to Jane’s characters, including an interesting chapter that focuses on eight different male characters and where they fit on the fear-of-commitment scale. The book is divided into an introduction and sixteen chapters plus an appendix. Each chapter has a variety of sidebar tips for Janeites that are often insightful or at least good adages e. g. “Don’t be afraid to put relationships first in your life (you can get them right and still succeed in a demanding career).” Each chapter concludes with three short sections: “Adopt an Austen attitude”; “What would Jane do?”; “If we really want to bring Jane Austen back . . .” followed by brief suggestions, such as “After all, Jane Austen expected other human beings—not money, not accomplishment, not ‘independence,’ as much as she valued those things—to be the most reliable source of happiness in this life.” Since Jane was the daughter and sister of parsons, there is much in her outlook that is about morality, manners and religion and well worth repeating today.
One other thing I should mention, I like endnotes and in this book there are about 82 pages of notes, altogether about a third again as long as the chapters. Moreover, the notes are substantive and thought-provoking. I like notes because they show that the author didn’t just dictate a stream of consciousness as the mood struck her. Notes, and especially these endnotes, reflect a determined effort to study the subject. The notes include many references to pop culture articles from magazines and newspapers (who knew that people who believe in soul mates are 150 percent more likely to end up divorced than people who don’t?). Besides, a plethora of notes to pop culture and citations to Jane’s novels and letters, there are also references to George Washington’s correspondence, John and Abigail Adams’ letters, Wordsworth, Virginia Wolff, Alexis de Tocqueville, C. S. Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Jefferson, J. Budziszewski (a modern natural law philosopher), Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, Camille Paglia, Bob Dylan and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Such a wide breath of authority cited is not surprising. The author is Elizabeth Kantor who earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina along with an M.A. in philosophy from Catholic University. Dr. Kantor has taught English literature and is a recognized and experienced editor and author, including of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature.
The author begins the Appendix with a dose of reality “DID JANE AUSTEN REALLY MEAN TO GIVE US ADVICE? Aren’t her novels really just entertainment? And, anyway, isn’t the whole relationship advice seen a bit beneath Jane Austen’s dignity?” Of course not! Jane Austen is about relationships; men, women, sisters, family. Failing to explore the thoughts on relationships from such a gifted observer of the human condition would be a waste. This book is well worth your time, even if you are not in the mood for advice of the happily ever after variety. Its insights into Jane’s writings and her characters are invaluable.
James F. Nagle is Secretary of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After was published by Regnery, a sister company to Human Events.