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


LOPEZ: Is this book more an Austen fan’s indulgence at a market opportunity? Do you see it as a help to a wounded culture?

KANTOR: There is an awful lot of pain and misery out there; modern relationships seem to have hit a brick wall. Doing the research for the book, I kept noticing how bitter many single women are about men, something I was already to a certain extent familiar with, but, even more, how very resentful of women a lot of single men are. It’s not universal, of course. But modern mating habits don’t seem to be contributing much harmony and bliss to the human race. Jane Austen can offer each sex a refreshing alternative approach to the other — more mutual respect, more intelligence about how to get what we want from each other, but in a way that’s neither manipulative nor ham-fisted.


LOPEZ: When did you decide you were going to do this book?

KANTOR: About eight years ago, two things happened around the same time. I was working on an article about some problems in modern relationships — in particular, the “working on our relationship” trap, where a woman is really trying to do two incompatible things at once (putting a 100 percent effort into making the relationship work and at the same time trying to figure out whether the guy is the right guy for her) — and I read a piece in the Washington Post about why Jane Austen is so popular with women. It occurred to me that Jane Austen had the answers to a lot of modern relationship dilemmas.

LOPEZ: What has the feedback been like?

KANTOR: My favorite bit of feedback is from the guys who come up to me to ask, “Where can I meet women like this?” Naturally, more women are interested in the book than men. But those guys encourage me in my belief that women could really change the dynamics of modern relationships if they were willing to try emulating Jane Austen’s heroines.

I’ve gotten a certain amount of grief from fans of the Victorian era, and then, from the other side, criticism for slamming the Romantics. But I think Jane Austen’s clear-eyed 18th-century ambition for relationships is really superior to either of those outlooks.

LOPEZ: Should mothers and other concerned women avoid the Mrs. Bennet temptation?

KANTOR: You mean the frantic way she’s trying to get her daughters married to rich men at any cost, and horribly embarrassing them in the process? Absolutely. But notice, there are also parents in Jane Austen who don’t pay enough attention to their daughters’ love lives — Lady Bertram, for example. Jane Austen is all about balance. My guess is that if she could see family life in the 21st century, she might think there was room for parents to offer more guidance than they typically do now.

LOPEZ: I noticed a Huffington Post headline from a column from a “dating and relationship coach” asking, “Hey Ladies, What’s Stopping YOU From Proposing?” What would Jane say?

KANTOR: I don’t think she’d advise us to throw out one of the few remnants of traditional courtship that have persisted into the 21st century — our intuition that it’s the man who has the responsibility to declare his love and propose marriage. Or, as Henry Tilney explained (when it applied not just to marriage proposals but even to invitations to dance): “Man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.”

That’s not very politically correct, but I’d argue that the unwillingness to take into account some real differences between men and women is contributing to the misery on the modern dating scene, and it can only improve things to take into account Jane Austen’s insights into male and female psychology, however unfashionable they may be.

A couple of months ago I was at conference where Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia talked about research data showing that marriages where the man actively pursued the woman during their courtship were happier in the long run.