Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter, and today I’m speaking with Elizabeth Kantor, author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Kantor: Gayle, thank you so much for having me.
GT: What can Jane Austen teach us about love? Did she marry and live happily ever after?
EK: She didn’t marry. I think you can make a case for happily ever after in her case, but she did, we have to admit, miss out on the thrilling high point of life that she gets just perfectly right there at the end of Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth and Darcy. I think in terms of her understanding of happily ever after you have to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you’re a woman who’s ever been deeply, intensely in love and you read those novels, you see she knew exactly what she was talking about.
GT: How do Jane Austen’s heroines differ on their general outlook on men compared with today’s women and our culture’s common portrayal of men.
EK: Jane Austen was very careful — and her heroines were like this too — were very careful not to be cynics about guys. Jane Austen was well aware of men’s limitations and their foibles. She’s funny about it in her novels, but if her heroines start to get that, like paint them all with a broad brush, all men are jerks — as Elizabeth Bennet says at some point, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” — that kind of man-bashing attitude, then in Elizabeth Bennet’s case, a wise aunt will say, You know, you’re sounding a little bit bitter there. Jane Austen really understands that it’s part of female dignity to respect male dignity. If you want guys to respect you, you have to stay away from that attitude that all men are just jerks.
GT: And why is male attention the ultimate intoxicant and how do Jane Austen’s women react to male attention?
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?