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21st Century Love Lessons from Jane Austen Novels

What is it about Jane Austen? How is it that even in today’s world—where women are incredibly independent, juggling careers, finances, and love lives—we still return to these 19th-century novels time and time again? Perhaps we love the sensory smorgasbord of formal balls and teas, billet-doux and ribbons, surreal mansions and cute countryside homes; the spice of amour and scandal; and, underlying it all, fundamental and timeless lessons about the bonds that hold people together, be they family, friends, lovers or spouses.

Even if you’ve never read any of Jane Austen’s novels, here are some of the core lessons that she imparts to her 21st-century readers:

Lesson #1: First impressions can (and tend to) be wrong! Make sure you take the time to really get to know someone before you judge him or her.

Pride & Prejudice may be the most famous of Jane Austen’s novels. It centers on the romance between the standoffish Mr. Darcy and the equally proud Elizabeth Bennet. At the beginning of the story, she feels certain that Mr. Darcy is the last man she could ever fall for. He is unbelievably rude and seems like the worst company a girl could ask for! Later on, however, Elizabeth realizes that he is, in fact, a very responsible, caring man who would do anything for her! The man she thought she despised is actually the man she loves.

Ever judged a guy without giving him the benefit of the doubt, only to find later that your first impression was wrong? This can go both ways—the surly guy you meet at a party can turn out to be a softie once you get him in a different element, but the cute barista who’s been flirting with you can be unbelievably self-absorbed upon closer inspection.

Lesson #2: Find the balance between head and heart.

Sense & Sensibility is like Jane Austen for Buddhists, with the moral of the novel being the need to find a kind of “Middle Way” between self-denial and self-indulgence in matters of the heart. Sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood couldn’t be more dissimilar. Elinor is disciplined and possesses a kind of self-command that results in her keeping most of her feelings to herself. Her sister is excessively dramatic and more than a bit conceited.

It’s important when dating to have the best of both worlds—frivolity and fun are wonderful, and being able to have a blast with your significant other is part of falling in love. However, you also need to have a connection on a higher level. You need to be able to talk, to share dreams with each other, to be open about what you want from the relationship and how you feel about the other person. Superficial relationships never last. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be afraid to express how you feel about someone. If you’re falling for him, make sure he knows it! You don’t have to bare your soul, just make sure that you give a few signals to let him know that you’re into him. Recent College of William & Mary graduate Mel Sparrow sums it up, “The thing about Austen that frustrated me most was how the plot was driven by misunderstandings and hidden feelings. The lesson I learned, whether she intended it or not, is just talk it out!”
Lesson #3: Don’t get so caught up in your friends’ love lives that you forget your own!

Emma, the heroine from Jane Austen’s Emma, is a young woman who has become so caught up in playing matchmaker for young Harriet Smith that she leaves her own love life on the backburner. Emma ultimately pushes Harriet away from the man she really likes and towards Mr. Knightley. The only problem is that Mr. Knightley would be perfect for Emma if she’d only take five minutes to think of herself!

When you go out to lunch with your BFF, does it feel like you’re always discussing her love life? What about yours? It’s easy to get absorbed in your friends’ love lives, but make sure that you’re making your own a priority. After all, your friends should be just as willing to listen to and (potentially) offer advice on your own romantic escapades. As Elizabeth Kantor puts it in her book The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, “Wise Jane Austen heroines seek out equal friendship—not out of snobbery, but out of respect for other people’s autonomy.”

Lesson #4: Make your own choices – no one is better qualified to determine what and who will make you happiest.

The most deliciously-titled of Jane Austen’s works, Persuasion, follows the relationship between Anne Elliot and Frederic Wentworth. They were happily engaged until Anne’s friend Lady Russel convinced her to break it off. Trusting that Lady Russel knew what was best for her, Anne split up with Frederic. Both of their hearts were broken until they were reunited years later and realized that they still had feelings for each other. They tentatively move past the hurt feelings and get married in the end.

They could have had their happy marriage years earlier if Anne had simply followed her own instincts and not listened to her friend’s advice! We collegiettes like to use our circle of friends as a sounding board for making decisions. It’s perfectly acceptable (and certainly normal) for us to discuss our dilemmas with our friends and solicit advice when we need it. However, you should always remember that you are ultimately the one who has to live out the choices you make. No matter how genuine or noble their intentions, you should never let other people make decisions for you about matters of the heart!
Lesson #5: Always trust your gut instincts.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is forced to move into a home she doesn’t know and live with the Bertram family. The character Henry Crawford is a big flirt in the book, but when he unleashes his charms on Fanny he seems truly in love. Still, when he proposes to her, she turns him down in spite of the fact that her family is furious as a result. Fanny chose not to ignore the nagging feeling in her gut and when Henry ends up running off with a married woman, her instincts prove to have been right on the mark.

As you can see, paying attention to your feelings can save you from a lot of heartbreak. Perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that you’re happy in a relationship that simply isn’t fun. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’re ignoring the fact that you’re falling for someone without even realizing it (like a close friend)! Benedictine College student Rachael Morphew approves of the latter, saying that “if he makes you laugh, he is much better than the guy always winking at you.”

Lesson #6: You’ll know when you’ve found the one.

In Northanger Abbey, 17-year-old Catherine Morland meets Henry Tilney, a funny and kind-hearted young man, who steals her heart almost immediately. They are separated for some time, during which another man pursues Catherine. Through everything, Catherine remains firm in waiting for her Henry.

Catherine’s loyalty to Henry is admirable. Very few of us have that kind of certainty about the guys we’re dating. Instead, we constantly question whether or not the one we’re with is, in fact, The One. This insecurity is often the result of constantly looking either backwards (comparing your current boyfriend with men you’ve dated in the past) or forwards (trying to predict where your current relationship is leading). Instead, try to focus on the present. Ask yourself, “Am I happy? Do I miss him when he’s gone and love every minute we spend together?” When you’re being stared in the face by a fantastic relationship, why fight it? Recognize that, maybe, the one you’ve been looking for is already in your life.

So, what we can learn from Jane Austen’s novels?

Though it may come as a relief to live 200 years later—in a world with infinitely more distractions and infinitely more freedom to enjoy them with—we often experience a greater degree of boredom than Jane Austen ever did. The beauty of her novels is the fact that she managed to add a wealth of joie de vivre to the oftentimes dull and repetitive routines of family life in rural, 19th-century England. To many, this seems a miraculous feat, but her trick was simply to focus on the characters of those around her, their motivations, aspirations, and above all, their interactions.

People still feel the same basic emotions today, and the variety of ways in which we approach relationships hold true in both her novels and contemporary everyday life. William & Mary graduate Emily Mason quips, “Austenian life lessons in thirty seconds: ALWAYS be yourself, never underestimate the importance of a well-written letter, and always turn down the first offer…”

A Chicago native, Elizabeth is going into her senior year at the College of William & Mary, where she is majoring in Psychology and Literary & Cultural Studies. Last year she circumnavigated the globe and visited 12 developing nations with a study abroad program called Semester at Sea, honing her travel writing skills and chasing her dream of someday working abroad. Currently she is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Winged Nation and the Philanthropy Chair of her beloved music sorority, Nu Kappa Epsilon. When she's not writing her butt off for class or for pleasure, she can usually be found practicing harp, watching Community, or hanging out with her Phi Sigma Pi brothers.