6 Things I (Shouldn't Have) Learned About Love From Jane Austen
Girls in my generation like to joke about Disney movies giving them unrealistic expectations about men. I have a friend who swears she imprinted on the Beast and will forever consider Stockholm Syndrome as the ultimate form of love.
Not me. My ideas of romance all came from Jane Austen novels. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were my aspirational couple back when my idea of real-life romance was having made eye contact with a boy (also, back when I thought I was straight). A handsome man with a beautiful house who is good to his sister and makes ten thousand pounds a year? Sign me up, please! (Okay, I still don't exactly know how much ten thousand pounds a year is in 21st century dollars, but Jane implies that it's a LOT.)
To this day, I reread all six of her published novels every summer, and from each one, I have gleaned dating advice I should never have taken. Naturally, I'm passing it on to you.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead. Although come on, guys, the books are 200 years old.)
1. “Ask her to love you, and she will never have the heart to refuse.”
Okay, I'll start with the perennial Austenite question: what is the deal with Mansfield Park? It's widely considered the most boring of the six novels, especially its fairly uptight heroine, Fanny Price. Unlike most Austen heroines who are social butterflies, she spends most of the novel trying not to be noticed and pining over her cousin Edmund (who is also really boring).
This is all the more frustrating because she has better choices. I know it's too much to hope that Fanny and Mary Crawford might decide to run off and have lots of bodice-ripping Regency lesbian sex, but Mary's brother Henry is so charming and he is so into her! He is not such a great person, but after he meets her, he is inspired to try to be better, and I couldn’t believe Austen ruined it by having him go off and sleep with somebody else.
I'm still a little mad that they don't end up together, but the last couple years, having encountered my own Henry Crawford, I've come around a bit. Yeah, Henry is cute and charming, but he's also kind of a dick. I finally realized that Austen was trying to teach me a very important lesson: Just because somebody likes that I am a good person doesn't mean they are one themselves.
2. “[Forgetting] would not be in the nature of any woman who truly loved.”
Anne Elliot of Persuasion is my Austen heroine of choice. She waits eight years for her man, rejecting other perfectly decent dudes who come her way. Then, at the old age of 27, she sees him again, they pine for a little while, and then they get married. She gets everything she's ever wanted when she's mature enough to really enjoy it! Sigh. I have mad respect for Anne.
That said, I once spent a year and a half pining over an ex, and let me tell you: abso-freaking-lutely not worth it. Every time I've tried to pull an Anne Elliot and wait patiently for my love to return from the Navy (or like, come home from college for Christmas break), it turns out badly. They start dating someone else, and I'm months behind on moving on.
3. “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”
Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey snags (in my opinion) the dreamiest Austen man, Henry Tilney, by basically looking pretty and not knowing anything. He is totally charmed that she thinks his house is going to be straight out of a Gothic romance. He finds it adorable that she doesn't know anything about picturesque beauty. When she lets herself be manipulated by her BFF Isabella, he tells her it's because she's so sweet.
Austen is careful to point out that Henry genuinely likes being around her and thinks she's a good person by the time they get married, and she goes out of her way to show him being kind to Catherine, but I'm still calling BS on this one. People who like you for being silly and naive are not people you should be dating.
4. “Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”
The title character of Emma is beloved by not just readers but also by literally all the townspeople of Highbury. The only person who has anything mean to say about her is Mr. Knightley -- and so, of course, she marries him. Similarly, Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy he loves her for being a jerk to him, and he pretty much agrees.
As a teenager, I had this habit of being really mean to people I liked and then smirking about it to myself. I thought this was a super-cute and extremely sophisticated flirting technique and saw these as literary proofs of it. I don't actually think that's what Austen meant for me to get out of her books -- it's more about being with someone who pushes you to be your best and also can tease you when you're cool with it -- but it took me until the first time I actually fell in love to realize that. Being nice to your partner is actually way more fun -- who knew?
5. “I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit…and such I might still have been, but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!”
Due to the aforementioned way she keeps giving him a hard time about everything, Darcy actually does change for Elizabeth. She calls him out on his douchenozzle manners, he listens, and then he's suddenly a much nicer person. I think a lot of us find that a little romantic -- the idea that we could inspire someone to improve themselves with our sheer awesomeness.
I have tried. I have set up ultimatums: "Listen, the way to get me to date you is to be nicer to puppies" or whatever. (I have never wanted to date someone who was mean to puppies, I promise, it's just that if I told you the whole story you'd be so bored you'd rather read ten million Mansfield Parks.) The thing is, when I did this, it never worked, because it turned out that the people didn't actually want to change; they just wanted me.
I'm not saying people don't sometimes turn into better matches for each other, just that it rarely works out well when you change specifically for the sake of the other person. In Darcy's case, he just didn't realize he was such a douchenozzle, so it's different.
6. “Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby.”
Sense and Sensibility compares the Dashwood sisters: Marianne, the emotional sister, and Elinor, the one who knows how to suck it up and wait to cry until she's alone. Austen makes pretty good arguments in favor of this: Marianne falls for a boy too hard too fast and everybody knows it, with the consequence that he breaks her heart and everybody knows that, too. She hurts people's feelings, makes herself physically sick, and is the subject of a whole bunch of gossip.
I'll admit I can't really argue with Jane on this one, but I'd like to. I pretend I'm more like Elinor, stoically keeping my feelings to myself to make myself less vulnerable, but it's a lie (otherwise I'd hardly be writing on xoJane). We Marianne Dashwoods of the world leave ourselves open to ridicule and heartbreak and sometimes aren't too careful with other people's feelings, but I figure that's okay for the same reason I go back to Jane's novels every year.
Courtship in 1813 was pretty different from the NYC queer lady dating scene in 2014, but her novels still resonate with me emotionally. There's something kind of charming about having the same dating problems that Elizabeth Bennet has, like cross-century girl talk. When I reread these novels in the midst of romantic angst, I can just picture Jane Austen reaching forward in time to tell me, "I know that feel, bro," and I feel a little bit less alone.