Jane Austen's Guide to Happily Ever After
Beliefnet blogger Gayle Trotter caught up with author Elizabeth Kantor on her new book highlighting lessons of love by the timeless Jane Austen.
BY: Gayle Trotter
EK: Yes, Jane Austen is just so smart about relationship dynamics and everything. You know how we have this vague cultural memory that back in Victorian times women had to dress modestly so as not to entice men with their physical allurements. In Jane Austen’s day, men were not supposed to pay women attention in a careless, immodest way. They weren’t supposed to be seductive with their attention and their approach to women. Because just like a guy gets his head turned if he sees a girl in a bikini, then often women get our heads turned if a guy pays a lot of attention to us. There’s a chapter in the Jane Austen Guide called “The Real Original Rules: Not for Manipulating Men, but for Helping Women Keep their Freedom” in respect to men. A lot of women, I think, can learn from Jane Austen, essentially relationship rules; rules for keeping enough distance between you and the guy that you can get to know him without losing your perspective on him.
GT: What were Jane Austen’s standards for good temper, and how did she define temper?
EK: I get into temper and also principles and also feelings and all these sort of basic categories for what makes a decent person, as kind of an alternative to… that’s how the women in Jane Austen judge men. Does he have a bad temper? Is he the kind of person who’s always pouting or swearing or generally making life unpleasant for people, or is he the kind of person who has enough self-control that life can be pleasant? That’s just one category of the many categories that she thinks is reasonable to judge people by.
Instead of the modern way where we too often are just going through life and not really thinking about the guys we meet in that objective way. Instead we’re just kind of waiting to be struck by lightning when we meet the one guy who floats our boat, and we don’t think about really what kind of person he is. Jane Austen actually shows you how that works. She has, for example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet meets Wickham, and they hit it off right away — he’s obviously her type, they have everything in common, they’re both really fun, social people — and then pretty far into her relationship with him, she suddenly notices, “Wait a minute; do I know anything about him that makes me think he’s a decent person? I’m hearing about him now and what a jerk he’s been in the past; could this be true?”
We think of Darcy as her soul mate, but really Darcy’s a very different kind of person from her and what first makes that love story with Darcy get started is she realizes that he’s an amazing person — that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for other people.
GT: You write in your book about how women need to be polite detectives and that plays into how Elizabeth didn’t know that much about Wickham, but she finds out a lot about Darcy. How does social media in our time make it more like Jane Austen’s world than maybe it was twenty, thirty years ago?
EK: That is such a fascinating question. I got really interested in this while writing the book. Life has been becoming less formal for literally hundreds of years, and it used to be in Jane Austen’s day that you didn’t socialize with people you weren’t introduced to. And if you were introduced to someone, then that meant that somebody was vouching for what kind of person he was.
In the couple hundred years since that time, we’ve obviously moved away from that, and it became totally average and normal for people to socialize with complete strangers and even to do a lot more than just socialize with complete strangers — get really intimate with people they had just met. But it was hard to find out what those strangers were really like. You could tell your story however you wanted to tell it and it was hard for the opposite party to know what you were really like. With the internet and Facebook and all the social media that we’ve got these days, it’s getting harder to hide. It’s getting harder to be somebody who is a complete stranger to everybody, and nobody can find out about you.
In Jane Austen’s day, they talked about what your character was. Having a certain character, which was the kind of person you were and were judged to be by other people based on your past behavior and past conduct.
Now that we’re all leaving a cyber trail, we’re getting, I think, to have a character again. To have a kind of record that we’re leaving that people can find out about. For The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After I interviewed a woman who’s kind of known among her friends as being somebody who’s really expert in finding out about guys online.
She told me a couple of interesting stories about dating a guy and in one case being able to figure out that really she was sort of like a girl-on-the-side for him. He had a girlfriend but wasn’t being honest about it. But she found it out from the web.