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.
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.