Monday, August 25, 2014

Don't Find Your Soulmate: What Jane Austen Heroines Aren't Looking For In a Mate...

...(and What They Are). 

This is the title of chapter ten of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor
(Don’t run out and get the book before you read all the way to my one warning)

Jane Austen

When I was a thirty year old single woman looking for love and studying theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, our friend, Karen, invited a bunch of us single gals (and a guy or two) over to her tiny apartment to watch a new mini-series on BBC America called Pride and Prejudice. At that time I had never read a Jane Austen book (such was my impoverished education in the literary classics) and so I knew nothing of Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. I am not sure how many girls in that crowded little apartment were as ignorant as I was, but I am sure there were a few. 

However, it didn’t take long for all of us to be hooked. We gathered in that little spot every night of that mini series, sighing over whether or not Mr. Darcy really loved Elizabeth Bennett, and moaning over the smarmy Mr. Collins (we decided that he was the personification of “smarmy”). 

For me, it was just the beginning. I followed up with reading or watching every Jane Austen novel or movie I could get my hands on. Many times I did both (read and watch), but not all. Recently, I began listening to the Librivox versions of many of these books. We are also watching the BBC versions of Emma and Pride and Prejudice with the kids on weekends. We finished Emma and they all loved it, and now we are starting PandP, with mixed reviews so far (one eight year old can be heard to complain that “all they ever do is dance and talk”). 

Then, as I was reading a great blog post on teen dating by the ladies over at Like Mother, Like Daughter I found a recommendation for The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor. 

Now, I have long since found my own Mr. Knightly, but I have also always been interested in the workings of the heart and the ways in which men and women relate and interact. Back in the day, I loved to sit around and talk through these things with my girlfriends, and I was quick with my opinions, though I had little experience in the dating scene. I especially like to discuss the distinction between “dating” as a state of being (or “being in a relationship), and “dating” as an action (as in going out on a date with this guy). Kantor’s book helps flesh out why those two things are very important to distinguish. 

I can say with conviction that this book would have been a great help to us girls back then. As it turns out, I may have learned a bit subconsciously from my Jane Austen obsession, but Kantor’s book spells it out so clearly. It has given me a renewed respect for Jane, not just as an author of romantic books (to be distinguished from “Romantic”—you’ll get it if you read the book), but as a sage in the realm of relationships. Jane Austen had what the author would call “a fine-tuned sense for relationship dynamics” and so did her heroines. 

In her introduction, Kantor claims that the character of Jane Austen’s writing is “neither romantic illusion, nor Victorian repression, nor modern cynicism.” In Austen’s novels women are not subject to the matchmaking abilities of their elders, nor are they slaves to their own passions. They independently choose whom to love and when to give way to that love in their own hearts. They know (or learn) the difference between true character and delightful manners (which any guy can master). 

Kantor ends each chapter with three short, bullet-pointed sections: “Adopt an Austen Attitude”; “What Would Jane Do?” and “If We Really Want To Bring Back Jane Austen”. Each section is filled with practical advice for the modern Jane Austen Heroine Wannabe (Janeite), or those who hope to guide them. 

She also has extensive footnotes. I read EVERY SINGLE ONE…because I wanted to!! They were great, many fun asides or little stories or quotes from the books that complete the picture. I can imagine her debating her editor: 

Editor: Okay, this section is a little long, do you really need the story of your high school boyfriend here, or the quote from Knightly about picnics, or the bedtime prayer that Jane Austen once wrote. Kantor: Yes!! It is important and illustrative! Can I put it in a footnote? 

Anyway, not only did I read every footnote, I read the introduction (which I hardly ever bother to do) AND the acknowledgements (because she seemed such a kindred spirit I thought I might find someone I know…I didn’t). 

Kantor's target audience appears to be your average young single Jane Austen fan who may or may not have a clear view of proper Christian morals when it comes to dating. She certainly assumes an awareness of the hook-up culture and will reference some TV shows, websites and articles that express that culture. Some of it is in footnotes, and all is referenced for you to peruse on your own if you wish. But the general tone of things would not be scandalous to anyone on most of this country’s college campuses. It may, however, be a bit too much for a more sheltered young woman of high school (or even college) age. As I said in the warning below, if you are on the right page when it comes to sex before marriage, you will be fine. If you aren’t and need convincing, she does not directly addresses it as a moral issue but hits towards the end as an issue of prudence. 

So..down to brass tacks: 

WHO SHOULD READ The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After: 

1. Anyone who loves Jane Austen and has read her major books (or is at least familiar with her movies*)

2. The mothers of young women (or young men)** who are not ready to marry, but hope to, and are ready to read Jane Austen. The book could help you organize a literary study unit about Jane Austen and the world of friendships, manners, proper behavior, savvy interacting with the opposite sex, etc. 

3. Any single gal (or guy) who believes she (or he) is ready to marry and hopes to find (or thinks they may have found) the right person. (NOTE: if you have not read (or seen the movies I recommend reading the books first—thanks to my good friend Laurie who forced me to finish reading Emma in the parking lot of the movie theater before we went in to see it), especially Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, and maybe even Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park you may learn more about what happens in those stories than you want to know prior to reading them, AND you may not get the points the author is making as well. 

4. Anyone who knows a single woman in want of a husband, or a single man (of great fortune or not) in want of a wife. 

WHAT WILL YOU GET FROM IT: (QUESTIONS ABOUT MODERN PROBLEMS)

Lots of great advice like: 
Don’t try to be a good wife before you are a wife.
and
Having a bad temper means living at other people’s emotional expense. 

You will learn how to identify and diagnosis men who are “afraid to commit” and what you can, or should, do about it. 

You will learn to be a discerning judge of real quality in human beings (including yourself).

You will learn how NOT to give up your freedom to choose a man from a position of independence. (for example: don’t “work on your relationship.” Work on figuring out whether you are going to—and should—have a relationship.)

In short, it was a delightful, informative read, and I highly recommend it! 

**********
Notes and stuff: 

*Though I would avoid the most recent version of Mansfield Park specifically, and perhaps others. See my list of my favorite movie versions below. AND, consider reading the books anyway first. 

** Though women tend to be more inclined to Jane Austen, men could certainly benefit from the examples of Mr. Darcy, Mr Knightly, and Captain Wentworth (among others) as well as the examples of the heroines who give them a good pattern to look for in a wife. 

WARNING: I am just going to quote Auntie Leila over at Like Mother, Like Daughter because she says it simply: *I really recommend The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After. For girls it is a great discussion-starter – if they are very familiar with the books (and only if — no use ruining for them the best books ever written). When all is said and done, I think it’s good to be clear on one thing the book somewhat forgets to mention, which is that it’s a sin to engage in premarital sex. But with that as a given, it’s an intelligent exploration of what how to attain happiness with another person, Jane Austen–style.

My favorite movie versions of Jane Austen books….as long as you have already read them…:

Pride and Prejudice BBC (This one isn't too bad either, and this one was better than I expected) (Oh! And this take-off is kind of fun!)
Emma, as well as the Gwyneth Paltrow version,( though I prefer longer ones, more to enjoy!)
Sense and Sensibility (I have not seen the BBC version of this)
Persuasion (I have only seen this one, there are others though)
Mansfield Park (though I don't love it as much as some of the others above. Definitely avoid this one. It was not at all accurate and actually offensive)