Jane Austen's books are famous for their romantic plot lines, but they were about more than just weddings. She gave depth and dimension to women in a time when they were often written off as second-class citizens. Austen's novels manage to feel relevant nearly 200 years later. So much so that you can apply her prose to your dating life.
Enter: The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide To Modern Love. In it, author Sinéad Murphy takes the writings of Austen and applies them to modern-day courtship. She breaks down what the venerable author would have recommended were she faced with the troublesome world of Tinder, OKCupid, and blind dates. Below, an excerpt from Murphy's book. You can pick up your own copy at Amazon.
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Photo: Courtesy of Melville House.
It ought to be a truth universally acknowledged, that a young woman in possession of a large number of modern dating guides must be in want of Jane Austen! Why? Because the novels of Jane Austen are still our safest guide to the rough-and-tumble course that is true love. The aim of this book is to prove that this is so.
But can Jane Austen’s novels really offer advice that our bestselling dating books cannot? What, after all, can they really have to tell us, that we have not now been told at least a hundred times over? — That women have substance to them, that is what! That women are the real thing.
When Jane Austen began to publish, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, novels were not yet all that popular. Young ladies instead passed their time by reading conduct books, Regency England’s equivalent of the modern dating guide, full of dos and don’ts for the woman who wished to flourish in society. Gradually, however, women began to spend less and less time reading conduct books and more and more time reading novels, which also provided advice on what a woman should and should not do, but in a manner that was much more entertaining and — very importantly! — much more emancipatory.
You see, the Regency conduct book tended to judge a woman by how she conducts herself — that is, by how she acts, by how she seems. The novel, by contrast, was concerned with what women are really like, admitting — perhaps for the very first time — that women too have a fulsome interior life, with thoughts and feelings that are as crucial to get right as the actions that follow from them. In the novel it was much more important that a woman cultivate herself than that she learn how to appear to do so, much more crucial that she be truly worthy than that she learn how to make herself seem so. In the novel, in other words, women were allowed to be real, and not merely the cardboard cut-outs to whom the conduct book directed its advice.
And Jane Austen was at the forefront of it all, presenting to the Regency world a host of real women — so determined to do so, indeed, that she invented her very own narrative style, which gives the reader almost unrestricted access to the internal life of her female characters. The Regency conduct book stood very little chance, once Jane Austen’s women of flesh-and-blood began to appear on the scene!
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Jane Austen did share something with the conduct book: she too believed we could do with a little guidance now and then, especially in the complex matter of love. The idea of our having a few simple rules was not, therefore, one to which she objected. But there are two different kinds of rules: there are rules for conduct and there are rules for character; there are rules for seeming and there are rules for really being. There are rules, in other words, and there are Jane Austen rules. And only the second are worth our following.
Photo: Courtesy of Melville House.
DON’T JUST SIT THERE, SAY SOMETHING!
When once you find yourself on a date, the advice of The Rules is simply not to talk too much. ‘Just listen to what he says,’ its authors recommend. ‘Follow his lead.’ ‘Sometimes,’ they continue, ‘men just want to drive in silence without saying a word. Let them. Maybe he’s thinking about how he’s going to propose to you one day. Don’t ruin his concentration.’ And, for the girl whose chief concern is to capture her man, this might just do it!
But for the Jane Austen woman, the idea of sitting demurely in the passenger seat while the man of whom she is supposed to be an equal occupies the driving seat, not just of the car but of the conversation, is, frankly, offensive! The advice that we remain silent, just in case our man is composing his proposal, implies that, by speaking, we would inevitably diminish his enthusiasm for doing so — it implies, in short, that women, like Victorian children, are creatures better seen than they are heard. But the Jane Austen woman is not a child — she does not just sit there, with her man in the driving seat, but says something, and does it rather well!
Of all of Jane Austen’s heroines, it is, perhaps, Elizabeth Bennet who is the best instructor in this matter. Full of wit and with a love of repartee, in the course of the novel she succeeds almost literally in talking Mr Darcy to life!
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Photo: Courtesy of Melville House.
On one of the first occasions on which Elizabeth and Darcy are in company together, Elizabeth’s mother, a woman herself bursting with conversation (though it is usually more eager than it is interesting!), ill-advisedly holds forth on an early love affair of Jane’s. It ended without engagement, Mrs Bennet admits, but she proudly informs her listeners that the gentleman in question did write some very pretty verses. ‘And so ended his affection,’ Elizabeth interrupts, impatient to call a halt to her mother’s mortifying efforts to impress Mr Bingley with Jane’s powers of attraction.
‘I wonder,’ she continues, ‘who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!’
With one short but pithy interjection, Elizabeth not only derails her mother’s chatter, but calls the company’s attention away from the subject altogether by airing an opinion entirely the opposite of a generally accepted one. Mr Darcy cannot resist the challenge. ‘I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,’ he responds.
And Elizabeth’s next stroke is one of genius.
‘Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.’
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We are told that ‘Darcy only smiled.’ But we can infer that he has already begun to feel intrigued by one whose conversation is as animating as her countenance is attractive.
What are we to learn from this short exchange? A very great deal, if we wish to. For one thing, we might immediately notice that Elizabeth is not confined to anybody’s passenger seat!, but takes it upon herself rather to direct the course of proceedings than anything else. And this is done with charm and originality, the key to which is the irresistible playfulness of her manner.
On a first date, The Rules’ rule is to be seen but not heard, so that your Mr Right will ‘think you’re interesting and mysterious.’ On a first date, and on all dates, The Jane Austen Rules’ rule is to be seen and heard, so your Mr Right will know that you’re interesting and mysterious, and bewitching and overpowering, and all because of, not in spite of, what you say!
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