Want to live happily ever after, for real? Once Upon a Time goes practical in Elizabeth Kantor’s book The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, which seeks to recover common sense and dignity in the matters of love and marriage. Kantor talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what Jane might have to say about men, women, and 50 Shades of Grey today.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is the cultural obsession with Jane Austen already? Will you have a vampire version next?
ELIZABETH KANTOR: Actually, I just checked Amazon, and it turns out there already is a whole Jane Austen vampire series (Jane Bites Back, Jane Vows Vengeance, &c.). Obviously, women today cannot get enough of the author of Pride and Prejudice.
Our perennial Jane Austen obsession was the thing that got me started writing The Jane Austen Guide. There are all these wonderful, mouth-watering things in her books that women today wish we could have — her heroines’ dignity and elegance, their savvy about men, the happily-ever-after endings — but we find it difficult to make them happen for us in the 21st century. I thought if I could distill Jane Austen’s wisdom on love into an advice book, she could actually help women today with their relationships.
LOPEZ : Do you have to like Jane Austen to like or even get the book?
KANTOR: No! Even if you’ve never read Jane Austen — or maybe you tried her and you didn’t “get” her — well, the book is meant to help you see the point. There are good reasons that Jane Austen is so popular 200 years after she wrote. She’s got insights into male and female psychology and relationship dynamics that you can still learn from, even if you don’t like reading novels. This is a very practical advice book for women; if you also enjoy all things Jane, that’s gravy.
LOPEZ: “The pursuit of rational and permanent happiness is what sets Jane Austen heroines apart.” From most of Western culture?
KANTOR: From even the other characters in Jane Austen’s books! Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot are on a pretty high plane. They certainly look elegant, dignified, and amazingly competent about their relationships compared with most of the women portrayed in popular culture today. They’re fictional characters, of course, but notice that Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion seemed realistic enough for popular fiction in the eighteen-teens, while Sex and the City and Hannah Horvath’s Girls seem realistic enough for popular fiction today.
LOPEZ: What exactly does rational and permanent happiness look like?
KANTOR: Like Elizabeth with Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. We see them deliriously in love, but their relationship isn’t just some crazy adventure that could easily end badly. They have excellent reasons for believing that they’re going to be happy with each other in the long run.
LOPEZ: What does “Don’t Try Love on the Installment Plan” mean?
KANTOR: There are actually two ways that women in Jane Austen’s books approach relationships.
There’s the Jane Austen–heroine way, where you follow the rules of courtship — not “The Rules” from that 1990s book about manipulating guys by playing hard to get, but reasonable standards for your choices about how to deal with men, grounded in some insights about human nature, male and female psychology, &c., that we’ve largely forgotten — and you end up with a Jane Austen heroine–quality happy ending. You don’t rush into intimacy with guys; instead, you keep enough distance to maintain your perspective while you’re evaluating a man’s character, and also while you’re discerning his intentions (a now sadly neglected task, but Jane Austen heroines know exactly how to manage it).
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.
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.
LOPEZ: 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.
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.
LOPEZ: So is that a good question to be teaching our girls to ask? “What would Jane do?”
KANTOR: Yes! 100 percent better than “Will you marry me?” Seriously, Jane Austen’s so smart about guys; she’s got her head screwed on so straight. Bringing her insights and her attitude into our thinking on any problem in our lives is only going to give us a better chance of managing things happily.
LOPEZ: What would Jane Austen make of Fifty Shades of Grey? Of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? Of our interest in any of these things?
KANTOR: I actually wrote a piece for the Huffington Post pointing out how the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon seems to suggest that women have some desires that aren’t being met in their relationships today, and trying to show how exactly the kind of love we see between Elizabeth and Darcy is an ultimately more satisfying outlet for those desires.
Reading erotica is just playing at a love that’s risky and powerful and life-altering. Jane Austen was more ambitious than that. She gives us pictures of how women can find a thrilling, transformative love that fits into real life, right in the middle of all the humdrum things we’re perpetually pestered with, like financial worries and annoying relatives. I think she’d advise us to forget about vicarious excitements, whether it’s reading trashy fiction or following the lives of the rich and famous, and figure out how our own lives can be more satisfying and exciting.
LOPEZ: Are there any signs that we’ll have anything like Austen’s novels again? Or is it all Carrie and Twilight and twilight?
KANTOR: Well, Jane Austen was a genius. They don’t come around every day. But there’s something else I think we modern women could use even more than new world-class novels about love and relationships. Our entertainment may be cheap and tawdry, but isn’t what’s going on in our actual lives a much bigger problem? The six amazing Jane Austen novels that we’ve got can offer real practical help with that.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.