5 Timeless Lessons We Learned From Jane Austen
The name Jane Austen usually conjures images of women in bonnets and men in uncomfortable-looking get-ups. They’re usually perched on an ivory settee or attending a picnic that seems to be more trouble than it’s worth and speaking in the kind of language that, although beautiful, requires patience and quiet to fully digest. If you’re not an Austen enthusiast, what you probably don’t understand is that she most certainly saw the humor in those images, and she put her characters in those situations deliberately. That whole ironic, tongue-in-cheek British thing reaches back farther than you might realize. She was pretty saucy underneath those Empire-waist gowns.
Austen was solidly middle-class, and her father was a clergyman, which meant she most likely saw glimpses of all kinds of home environments, from the posh people in the big manor house to the families who crammed several kids into a few bedrooms over a shop. She didn’t live very long — 41 years — and she never married. It wasn’t technically kosher for women to be writers in Georgian and Regency England, and being a novelist wasn’t the celebrated career path it is today. It was considered kinda trashy. At best, a female novelist experienced who-does-she-think-she-is or why-did-she-have-to-go-and-do-that flack.
Thankfully for us, Jane Austen didn’t care. Eventually her books got published, and her popularity and talent paved the way for women writers to satisfy their itchy fingers without disapproving glances — or, as she would say, “disapprobation.” Looking past the unfamiliar vocabulary — what, you don’t “chuse” a suitor who “shews” an “amiable” nature? — and the breeches, Ms. Jane Austen had a lot of timeless statements to make:
1. Class doesn’t always guarantee class
If she wanted us to take away one thing from her writings, it was probably that social class wasn’t a good indicator of character. It was clear that Austen wasn’t a fan of many of the conventions of her time: Marrying a rich man for love was hitting the lottery, but it was something all the girls from the gentry up were hoping to do in her books — and the rich part was the key. Love was just the icing. If you were really lucky, like Aunt Bertram in Mansfield Park, you’d catch the eye of a baronet, and he’d love you and allow you to be yourself and do your own thing, like sit on a sofa and breed pugs for 40 years. But sometimes money means you can afford to be flighty, fickle, and manipulative.
On the flip side, living at the bottom of the food chain means you’ve got nothing to lose. Mansfield’s Fanny Price is as wise and loyal as Emma’s über-rich good-guy Mr. George Knightley, and Fanny’s wannabe boyfriend Henry Crawford is as selfish and capricious as P&P’s low-class compulsive gambler Mr. Wickham. And Wickham is every bit as charming and definitely more handsome. The message: When making friends and choosing lovers, know your priorities and be prepared to live with them.
2. Karma will always come back to get you
Jane Austen and Justin Timberlake can agree on at least one thing: What goes around comes around. (Although, if her characters were based at all on real people, “Cry me a river,” is probably something she would’ve liked to say to a few of them.) If you’re going to be a jerk, you’re going to get what you deserve in the world of Austen. In Emma, superficial Mr. Elton wanted a rich and pretty wife, and he landed one, but, man, is she annoying. Spoiled Maria Bertram ran off with the aforementioned Mr. Crawford in Mansfield, bringing scandal to her affable and super-rich husband, and she ended up spending the rest of her life with her stingy and insufferable Aunt Norris. Caroline Bingley of P&P and Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park, though beautiful and cunning, don’t get what they’ve spent the whole novel scheming for and have to settle for something less. Sometimes the punishment is merely obscurity, but for some, that’s bad enough.
3. Communication can really make your life easier
Another technique used widely in fiction of all kinds is miscommunication. The feeling of “why doesn’t she/he just tell him/her?” can’t be solely attributed to Austen, but her novels are rife with it. In P&P, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, the characters we grow to know and love nearly destroy all hopes of happiness by keeping their mouths shut or opening them at the wrong time. It’s not a great idea to gossip, but if the reason you show an unexplained aversion to an otherwise universally liked character is the fact that he impregnated and abandoned your teenaged ward, maybe you should tell the woman he’s leading on, especially if you’re in love with her yourself. With pragmatic Elizabeth Bennet and introverted Mr. Darcy, a short conversation would’ve prevented a lot of emotional suspense. It also would’ve robbed us of a classic novel, but the lesson’s pretty clear.
4. Smart women are cool
According to Edmund Bertram, Fanny Price’s mind is as vivacious and hungry as any man’s. As backward as that sounds, if a privileged rector said that to his baronet father about you, it was pretty high praise. The literacy rate in England in 1800 was about 62 percent, so it was impressive to be able to read, let alone be well-read. Austen’s heroines were smart, independent, and quick-witted in a time that didn’t always celebrate or even tolerate that sort of thing. Emma, who wasn’t necessarily well-read or that interested in book-smarts, can’t assess situations as well as she thinks, but she’s as educated as a woman could be, quick-thinking, and certainly not afraid to say what she thinks. Austen’s women don’t latch on to the first offer that comes along, and they’re often shocked by what their fellow women expect out of life.
5. We all just want to be happy in the end
A lot of people are down on the concept of a happy ending, and it’s not a new thing. The Greeks were entertained by tragedies, Shakespeare peppered his repertoire with catastrophe, and many of the writers in Austen’s time were far more interested in philosophizing than lifting hearts. While they might not be considered beach reads nowadays, Austen’s novels were for the most part meant to be light, funny social commentary, sometimes with a slight moral agenda. The happy ending was mandatory.
After eight long years, Persuasion’s Frederick Wentworth has worked his way up from being a poor, unconnected naval officer to a wealthy captain and hero, and he straightens things out with Anne Elliot. Lizzy and Darcy finally proclaim their love, Emma ends up with an even more charmed life than she started with, Fanny snags Edmund, and the Dashwood sisters escape spinsterhood. Readers close their books happily, understanding why they’re constantly being re-adapted into new BBC and ITV miniseries and immediately adding those titles to their Netflix queues.
Sara Gentry is a newspaper editor turned novelist. She lives in Brooklyn, where much of her life is dominated by the unlikely combination of writing, crocheting and rock and roll. She also loves all things England, from Jane Austen to Led Zeppelin. For a taste of her rock and roll fiction, visit www.saragentry.com.