It takes me about three minutes of cocktail party chat to sell The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After as the perfect graduation present to any father of a young woman in her teens or early twenties. Why? Well, they're men, and they love their daughters. They know male psychology from the inside, and they're terrified that the young women they care about -- educated and polished, extraordinarily competent in so many ways -- will lose in the battle of the sexes. Not in education, or sports, or the world of work, but in the bedroom.
It's a cliché -- the accomplished modern woman who has achieved success in every area of her life but the one that matters most to her. She has the education, the career, and the financial independence that women in the past could only dream of. But she can't find the right guy. Or she thinks she has found him, but he won't commit. And even if he does propose, too often under pressure, there's still so much to be negotiated -- whether to have children, how much to co-mingle finances, who does the housework.
And those are the stories with relatively happy endings. Other women have nothing to show for years of encounters with men but a string of amusing-but-appalling tales they tell to entertain their girlfriends --like the "assorted humiliations" Lena Dunham's new HBO series Girls is built around. While a lot of things have been getting easier for women, relationships seem to have gotten harder.
My proposal -- Jane Austen to the rescue! She's the obvious guru to go to if modern women want love lives with more dignity. Her keen insights into male and female psychology can teach women to be really competent about men, like her heroines. And her novels are the model for a kind of love that modern women have almost given up hoping for. Her heroes aren't reluctantly "wheedled and caressed" into giving women what we desperately want, in painful stages. Captain Wentworth is eager to lay his heart at the feet of the woman he sees as a rich prize. Mr. Darcy says Elizabeth "showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
Possibly because she herself neither married nor had the educational and career opportunities that we do today, Jane Austen was able to focus the powers of her considerable genius on the problem of relationships -- the myriad ways they can go wrong and the principles to follow, to get them right.
She was no slacker in the career department. Putting it mildly, the authorship of Pride and Prejudice outshines any item on our résumés. But her own attitude was "what a trifle it is" to be known for that accomplishment, compared to "the really important points of one's existence." It's our relationships with human beings that make us happy -- or not -- in the end. Jane Austen can show modern women how to find happiness in love.
In love, pursue happily ever after. We all want to be happy. But we're not all engaged in the pursuit of what Elizabeth Bennet calls "rational" and "permanent" happiness. Just like Jane Austen's characters, we're too often distracted by all the other things you can want from men and relationships. Here are just a few of Austen's "tips":
- Steer clear of romantic drama. Of all the things you can pursue in love besides happiness, adventure is probably the most seductive. That's the mistake poor Marianne Dashwood, Jane Austen's only tragic heroine, makes. Marianne is too preoccupied with her romantic adventure to notice that the man she's playing at bliss and heartbreak with is setting her up for a broken heart for real.
- Don't find your soul mate. Jane Austen thought it was ridiculous to decide that a man you've just met is The One on whom "the happiness or misery of my future life must depend." In her novels, love is about prudence as well as passion.
- Keep enough distance so you can see the guy in perspective. Social life in Jane Austen's day was arranged so that women could get to know men well enough to judge them as potential mates--without getting so close that they became prematurely "attached."
- Do reconsider your guy friends as romantic prospects. Are you friends with somebody who's a really stand-up guy, only you never think of him romantically? Maybe while you've been wasting your time with a charmer who'll never be serious about you, you've been missing your Mr. Knightley.