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
GT: That’s very painful.
EK: Yes, it is painful, but the sooner you find out, the better.
GT: Yes, yes. What did Jane Austen see as the most reliable source of happiness in this life?
EK: Jane Austen’s understanding of happiness is — there’s a whole chapter in The Jane Austen Guide where I talk about what she really means by what Elizabeth Bennet calls rational happiness, or permanent happiness. But essentially it’s a kind of balance. Captain Wentworth talks about Anne Elliot as “The loveliest medium.”
That happy medium idea. But it’s not like a boring, not-too-hot, not-too-cold kind of thing. It’s really a dynamic balance where the heroines are walking a tightrope, and it’s exciting every minute that they accomplish being that loveliest medium. Especially in Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, what you see is, both Elizabeth and Darcy sort of start out being not in very good balance. She starts out with an instant prejudice against him, and he starts out with a lot of pride and unwillingness to kind of bend to society and be pleasant to folks. And to question himself, really at all.
And in the course of the book, they move, both of them, toward the center and toward each other and learn how to correct themselves and become better people together, and that’s really what their love affair is about. That’s the theme of their love affair — the two of them getting to be better people.
GT: How did the living arrangements of Jane Austen’s day help her characters to be more considerate of others’ needs, and how does our financial independence harm this development today?
EK: That whole financial independence issue is just so interesting in Jane Austen. People think about Jane Austen’s books as being all about some class of superior rich people who are very different from us today.But really, Jane Austen could not afford to have her own bedroom. She shared with her sister all her life. Which is hard, but the fact is, if you have to live with your family if you can’t afford to get your own apartment right out of college, then you pick up some relationship skills that I think are a little bit harder for us today. Today we talk about “working on our relationships” and getting along with a guy, a boyfriend, a husband, seems to us to be really a hard thing. Whereas to Jane Austen, that relationship seemed easier than a lot of others — than the relationship with your parents you’re still living with. And I think she would have been delighted that more people can afford — especially women — to be financially independent. She thought financial independence was fantastic, but she also noticed that it spoiled people. In her books, it’s more the heroes, the guys back then, who are more likely to be financially independent. But she talked about how Willoughby, say, in Sense and Sensibility, was spoiled by early independence, so I think modern folks need to really look out for — maybe some of the problems in our relationships are — we’ve gotten a little spoiled and we’re not used to ever yielding and accommodating to other people.
GT: Why does Jane Austen condemn marrying without love?
EK: She thinks it’s wrong. She thinks it’s morally wrong to marry without love. She calls it “duping somebody,” because he wouldn’t want to marry you if he didn’t think you had feelings for him, right, because that’s just not honest.
But then she also talks about what the likely sad results are going to be. This is in these fantastic letters that Jane Austen actually wrote. She had a correspondence with her niece when her niece was going through the courtship phase of life.So you can not only get the novels and I draw not only on the novels in the Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, but also on these actual letters on advice about whether to marry a guy that Jane Austen wrote. And what she tells her niece is, on the one hand, the guy her niece may want to marry is just perfect in a lot of ways: He’s friends with her family, he’d be a good match, but the niece just can’t get enthusiastic about him or seemed to sort of like him, but now that he likes her she doesn’t like him as much. Jane Austen is saying you just better not get engaged to him without being in love with him because you don’t want the terrible thing that’s likely to happen, which is you’re bound to one guy and then sooner or later someone’s going to come along that you really can like and really can fall for and how awful to be bound to one person and in love with another person.
GT: Right. How did Jane Austen’s heroes differ from Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s heroes?
EK: There’s this great quotation that I love from Florence King who used to write for National Review. She said, “More women have been ruined by Wuthering Heights than by strong drink.” Meaning that the sort of romantic ideal that you see in Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff and Catherine — it’s a totally impractical match and love story and a bad one because Catherine despises Heathcliff at the same time that she feels like she’s drawn to him and eternally belongs with him and they’re really the same person. So it’s a story of hopeless misery and drama and adventure that makes the protagonists the most interesting people in the world and more authentic than the rest of us who live our conventional, ordinary lives where we may have some passion but we’ve got prudence, too. Well no, no, no; throw prudence aside.
The Bronte ideal is drama and that’s really not what Jane Austen is about. Unfortunately, it’s kind of still a cultural ideal today, that romantic ideal that — as Nicholas Cage says in Moonstruck — “It’s not love unless it hurts.”
GT: Why do you write that Jane Austen was from a time before happiness had become boring?
EK: It has a lot to do with that whole Romantic idea. Up until her day, or a little bit before her day, marriage was going in, I think, a good direction. For hundreds of years, Western civilization has been moving away from arranged marriage toward marriage for love so that in Jane Austen’s books, the ideal is a women gets to choose for herself — she doesn’t have to marry somebody that her guardians and her parents pick. But she’s using prudence. She’s taking into account the kind of things that parents used to take into account. Things like: Will we have enough to live on, does he get along with my friends and family, what’s his character like, is he an alcoholic or a person who has such a bad temper that he’s going to ruin my life. Those very prudent concerns were things that girls were actually supposed to take into account at the same time that they were falling in love. In other words, they were supposed to attempt not to fall in love with a guy who would wreck their life. And then this Romantic ideal with the Brontes and Byron with, as Jane Austen says, “impassioned descriptions of hopeless misery,” come along and persuaded a lot of people that it’s really more interesting to fall into a love that breaks you out of convention and liberates you from normal life and maybe makes you miserable, but isn’t that so exciting? And you can still see that in songs we have on the radio today. And just over the weekend at a party I ran into someone who was interested — she read The Jane Austen Guide and she wanted to talk to me about it — she read the Brontes, she read Wuthering Heights at the wrong time of her life, and it had this big impact on her and made her make a lot of choices that she regrets now.
GT: Is church the best place to find a good man today?