10 Lessons On Love We Can Learn From Jane Austen

In her relatively short lifetime, Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote six classic novels. Although she has been gone for 202 years, her stories remain as prevalent and powerful as ever. Austen’s characters are mostly trapped in a highly class-conscious world and are probably more relevant and compelling now than even fifty years ago. But when it comes to affairs of the heart, Austen's stories continue to have much to offer us, especially as we lead into Valentine’s Day this year.

1. Never Settle For Love

During the time Jane Austen wrote her novels, it was almost revolutionary to marry someone for love. When Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, rejects not one, but two marriage proposals, readers reacted with shock, joy, and a recognition that women could have the power to marry for reasons other than a parental desire for economic status or stability. One may easily imagine 19th century women reading Lizzie Bennet’s rejections and throwing their bonnets in the air in excitement, and running to their female friends to talk about the novel. In 2019, marriages are more of a personal choice, but, too often, women especially continue to feel the need to “settle.” There also remains significant pressures to settle down and marry, even if that means marrying someone you really do not wish to marry.  Elizabeth Bennet rejected two proposals, despite the pressure of her mother, and said she would never merely settle. When faced with this dilemma, the answer is clear: Be like Elizabeth Bennet!

 

2. Don't Let Others Get in the Way of Your Love

There is a lot of third party meddling going on in various Austen novels. In Emma,  Emma Woodhouse is a sort of proto-anti-hero as she is the village romance meddler. Emma wrongfully convinces a penniless young woman, Harriet, to reject the proposal of a man who Emma thought was beneath what Harriet could achieve. In Pride & Prejudice, Fitzwilliam Darcy tells his friend, Bingley, that Elizabeth Bennet's older sister, the physically beautiful Jane, is more in love with Bingley’s status and money than Bingley himself, which turns out not to be true at all. When Bingley breaks up with Jane, Elizabeth is even more furious at Darcy, while Jane goes into a deep depression. In Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot listens to her parents and breaks her engagement to her one true love at the beginning of the novel, as her parents did not approve of his low status. Two of the many lessons we learn from Jane Austen novels is not to let the opinions of other people overly influence your love life, and not let others get in the way of your romantic relationships. 

3. Don't Judge People Straight Away

The original title for Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions, which illuminates how we need to look past our first impressions when meeting other people. Elizabeth initially believes Darcy to be a wealthy, arrogant snob with no feelings or concern for others. By the end of the novel, Elizabeth realizes people are not always perfect, and most importantly, the first impressions they give may be deeply wrong. Too often, we may find we are quick to judge someone with whom we may otherwise consider a romantic relationship, and then find it is too difficult to convince others that our first impression was wrong.  Likewise, love at first sight may be just as wrong, as when Elizabeth and her sisters fall in love with Wickham, a former ally of Darcy who, at the time, the Bennet sisters meet him, is in the British military and dressed in the most gallant soldier clothing. However, Wickham turns out to be a cad. Austen often shows us that love is slow and not seen straight away. Maybe that friend-date will turn out to be more important than the date-date you recently went on. In any event, don’t go off first impressions you have of people as you may miss out on the person who, in the long run, may be your “Darcy.” 

4.  Don't Give Your Heart Away Too Easily

This is clearly seen in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne is seen giving away her heart to Mr. Willoughby the moment he saves her. She is smitten and is unable to see his true personality. He "ghosts" her in the Regency Era sense by not replying to her letters and her having to learn through others that he was marrying a wealthy woman, as opposed to Marianne, a woman of limited economic means. Sense and Sensibility is largely about the dangers of becoming caught up in the idealized grandeur of romance and passion. This is not usually the best thing to do though because love only can happen if you connect in a deeper level, not stand on shallow similarities or hollow, cliche-driven romantic gestures. Let’s be careful with our hearts and not let charm fool us.

5.  Let Your Crush Know How You Feel

I know this is a hard thing to do, but in the long run it is usually the best thing we can do in love. Most Austen novels and most rom-com films would end early if the characters were only honest with each other. Many characters in Austen's novels feel trapped and are too afraid to tell someone their true feelings. For example, Jane Bennet is a shy woman, who, despite her physical attractiveness and kind sentiments, has a gravely difficult time expressing her affections.  When she behaves in her usual cautious and shy manner with Bingley, Darcy, also overhearing Jane and Elizabeth’s mercenary mother talk about Bingley’s wealth, believes that Jane is more interested in a commercial marriage, not a marriage based upon honest feelings. Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Emma’s somewhat older, male friend, were each too afraid of jeopardizing their years-long friendship to tell each other their true affections for one another. It is the hardest thing in the world to express our feelings for another person because of the risk that the other person may not reciprocate, and we may lose the other person from our lives. Everyone is scared of rejection. If, however, our feelings are really strong for another, the constant pain of the fear of rejection is not worth it. In other words, let’s go for it! As much as we want to be characters in a romance novel, let’s just skip to the end and find out how it ends. Right now.

 

6. Don't Give Up On Love

So many times a heartbreak or bad timing can make us believe we should give up on love. That is simply not true, as perfectly expressed in Jane Austen’s lesser known novel, Persuasion. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are not allowed to get married in the early part of the novel. Then, after years of Wentworth establishing himself in the Navy, he returns to Anne’s town. But even then, it takes a while for the pair to get back together. However, the two never give up on their love for one another. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen shows us how Marianne, after Willoughby’s rejection, pines and isolates herself to the point where she is almost willing to end her life. Yet just then, kismet arrives in the face of an old suitor who Marianne realizes has more strength of character than anyone she has ever known. So let’s never give up on even the idea of love. It can happen and it happens. Whether love stays or not is the rest of the story.

7. Be with Someone Who Makes You a Better Person

It is important to be with someone who makes you want to be better than we were before we met this person. This idea is a common narrative in Jane Austen novels. In Pride and Prejudice, both Elizabeth and Darcy have to work on themselves, before they can finally be in a loving relationship with one another. Darcy has to overcome his pride of coming from an upper class family and Elizabeth must overcome her being too prejudiced and basing her opinions of others from her first impressions. In Emma, Emma Woodhouse has to find humility and see her faults before she and Knightley can be together. It is okay if the other person has the same goal as you, to be a better person for the other. That way, it works out for everyone involved.

8. Don't Marry For Money

As much as I joke about only marrying for money, I always realize I really do not mean it. With all the financial challenges most of us face, starting with college debt and the inability to afford health care, marrying rich can sometimes be a primary option for some people. As much as we ridicule Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, was she really wrong to want to have all of her daughters marry well if it meant her daughters would be protected in the long run? Still, it is a very toxic idea, particularly as one may grow to despise a person who may be the innocent party in the relationship. Sometimes, people can’t help it if they are rich, particularly if they are the child or grandchild of the person who made the money. Marry for the size of someone’s heart, not the size of their wallet.

9. Sometimes Love is Right In Front of You All Along

I know this is cheesy, but hear me out. Falling in love is wonderful, but falling in love with a friend may be the most beautiful. So many times people are out searching for love, and miss what was right in front of them if only they looked more carefully around them. Friends understand who we are and have already been at our side when we are sick, down, angry and frustrated.  That is why I adore Knightley and Emma because they are best friends who end up as lovers. Anyway, Knightley and Emma truly love and respect one another. Too many times we get lost in going out to find someone special when that special person was with you at the start.

10. Love is Not Flashy

Many of Austen's heroines have a hard time deciphering what love should be. In S&S, Marianne believes it to be made of romantic gestures or loving the same artwork.  Marianne, however, eventually learns these are shallow and flashy when her perceived lover, Willoughby, ends up betraying her. Marianne figures out what true love is when she finally sees the man Colonel Brandon is and how he deeply cares and respects her. This is also similar with Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. Throughout the novel, Catherine believes love and romance to be like what she has read in her romantic Gothic novels of the day. That turns out not true at all as she begins to fall in love with Mr. Tilney. Their love is based off mutual respect and understandingfor one another. I think it is important not to view love and romance as flashy, but instead as respect and understanding.

 

Jane Austen never married and instead turned down at least two suitors during her life. Austen was, however, a true observer of the human condition, and saw when others had achieved that rare state of true love. Austen’s understanding of the human heart transcends time, and reading her novels provide us important and nearly timeless insights in matters of love and romance. With Valentine’s Day approaching, a self-check may be in order. And with Jane Austen as our guide, we may find ourselves wise enough to know when we are entering our own love story.