It’s Not a War of the Sexes
The insights of Jane Austen should not be lost.

From the cover of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, by Elizabeth Kantor


But there’s also the love-on-the-installment-plan method. Lydia Bennet, Mrs. Clay, and Maria Bertram — all of those characters first jump into a relationship and then, after they’re already committed to the guy, have to try to talk him into returning their love. Instead of the man they love being eager to lay his heart at their feet (like Darcy with Elizabeth), he has to be “wheedled and caressed” into making a commitment (like Mr. Elliot with Mrs. Clay). A modern woman who finds herself in a painful series of negotiations with the man she loves — maybe first even to get him to admit he’s her boyfriend, eventually to propose — is like those not-heroine Jane Austen characters, trying for love on the installment plan.

Social scientists talk about “the cohabitation effect” — they keep finding that couples who live together before they get married, and especially who live together before they’ve even decided to get married, not only divorce at a higher rate, but also are less happy in their marriages.


LOPEZ: But doesn’t it help to know what you’re getting into?

KANTOR: The problem with that argument for what Jane Austen would have thought of as premature intimacy — for living together before both parties are ready for a permanent commitment, for example — is that the more you gain information about what the guy’s really like, the more you lose your perspective about him because of what Jane Austen called “attachment.” It’s only in modern times that we’ve begun to understand the physiological basis for the attachment phenomenon — in the “bonding hormone” oxytocin — but Jane Austen understood exactly how it played out in relationships.

LOPEZ: “To inspire us, Jane Austen shows us heroines who win through happiness. But to warn us, she also gives us women who don’t. They fail not so much because they’re looking for love in all the wrong places as because they’re looking for other things where they ought to be looking for happiness in love.” Where do you see that failure most in our culture today?

KANTOR: The biggest temptation away from happily-ever-after for most people today is probably the crazy capital-“R” Romanticism that Jane Austen actually made fun of — you know, where you go along expecting to be struck by love as if by lightning (and surprise! your life ends up looking like charred rubble). The Romantic “Cult of Sensibility” was a relatively new fad in her day — the idea that it isn’t true love unless it strikes you out of the blue, that having a broken heart makes you a more interesting and authentic person, that happiness is really kind of boring. An awful lot of people today are looking for drama in love — for an adventure — instead of for happiness.

But of course you can get sidetracked by other things, too — you can pick a man for his status, or use a guy as a security blanket. Or you can read Cosmo and decide life’s all about getting male attention at any cost. (There are characters in Jane Austen who make all those exact same mistakes.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with adventures, or status, or security, or male attention. But if you put those things first in your relationships, you may never get around to the happily-ever-after kind of love.

LOPEZ: What is an “Austen attitude” and how does one adopt it?

KANTOR: Well, that’s what The Jane Austen Guide is for — a couple of hundred pages’ worth of help toward getting inside Jane Austen’s mindset about love, men, relationships, marriage. It won’t fit into just a sentence or two, but the best way to sum it up is “ambitious realism” about relationships.

Virginia Woolf claims that by the age of 15 Jane Austen “had few illusions about other people and none about herself.” But she wasn’t disillusioned either. She was just realistic — capable of seeing things as they really are, without ever letting all the vice and folly in the world make her bitter or cynical. And ultimately she approached relationships with hope, in the faith that men and women can find happiness together. Her heroines go about achieving their happy endings with remarkable dignity and aplomb.

LOPEZ: How do we introduce it to young people outside of books — especially ones the guys might not be that into?

KANTOR: If a significant number of women decided to wake up tomorrow morning and act like Jane Austen heroines — not the horse-drawn carriages and the empire-waist dresses, obviously, but the dignity, the savvy about men, the focus on happily-ever-after as the end game when it comes to love and relationships — I think quite a few men would eventually start acting differently, as well.