LOPEZ: “Keep your distance. Not to increase his love by suspense — but so you can make up your mind about a man while you can still see him clearly.” So no games, just detached discernment?
KANTOR: Definitely no games. As Mr. Darcy says, “Undoubtedly, there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” Jane Austen heroines (well, setting aside Emma, until she gets her act together at the end of the book) aren’t manipulative or meanly cunning. They’re straightforward with the guys in their lives, but without letting it all hang out.
: But can you ever truly be detached and discerning when it comes to matters of the heart, when it is such an emotional thing?
KANTOR: It is a little like a high-wire act. I mean, that’s where the excitement of Jane Austen’s novels comes from. Her heroines are doing this amazing thing — falling in love, but at the same time actually having the presence of mind to judge the man’s character. Somehow they manage to arrange their own marriages, to take into account all those prudent questions (Will we have enough money to live on? Is he a gambler or a womanizer who’s going to ruin my life?) that parents used to have to worry about but are now their own responsibility. They have passion and prudence at the same time — something we’ve almost forgotten to aim for.
LOPEZ: You write that Jane Austen “teaches women to apply our talent for relationships to figure out how both sexes can avoid the pitfalls our weaknesses expose us to. She shows how men and women can transcend our limitations to meet each other in a place where we’ll both be happy.” But what if you don’t actually have that talent?
KANTOR: But you do! What I’m talking about is something that women today don’t even realize is a talent and a strength — because in 21st-century conditions it so often looks like a weakness or even a guilty obsession. I’m talking about our preoccupation with relationships, our capacity to attach and stay attached (which Anne Elliot claims as a “privilege” of our sex), our intuition that people matter more than anything else in the world. It’s the thing about women that sells all those romance novels, chick flicks, and copies of Bride magazine — and Jane Austen novels. And okay, there may be some tiny percentage of women out there who really are completely fulfilled by designing rockets or doing brain surgery, or whatever, and just aren’t that interested in love, or relationships, or family. Human nature is full of variety. But how many of those women have you actually met?
LOPEZ: Is Austen’s advice for all ages? Or is there a particular age range that may find your book of particular use? Is this all very silly if you’re over a certain age?
KANTOR: I don’t think anybody is too old to learn from Jane Austen. She herself was eventually a 40-year-old spinster who had given up any prospect of marriage for herself. But I don’t think she ever stopped being a great role model for all of us. When the secret that she was the author of Pride and Prejudice was getting out, her comment was, “What a trifle it is, in all its bearings, to the really important points of existence even in this world.” The most important things in her life were relationships — with her sister, with her nieces and nephews. Her novels are about finding “relationships” in the romantic sense, but I certainly benefit from her insights and her heroines’ example in my married life. And for women who feel like it may be too late for love — well, that’s the exact scenario of her novel Persuasion.
LOPEZ: Where does religion fit into love and courtship in Austen’s world?
KANTOR: Well, one of her novels is actually about that, at least in large part. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford falls deeply in love with Fanny Price and tries to explain to his sister what’s so wonderful about her, why he knows he can trust Fanny completely — and Jane Austen tells us it’s because of Fanny’s religious principles, but that Henry doesn’t understand Fanny (or religion) well enough to articulate that. That same tone-deafness to moral and religious principles messes up his sister’s love life pretty spectacularly later in the novel.
Jane Austen’s brand of Christianity was not at all flashy or ostentatious, but she was quite a serious Christian.