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Miss Austen’s Guide to Life

January 18, 2013

Jane AustenI like Jane Austen because everything you need to know about life can be learned from her novels. If you follow the examples of her heroines and correct in yourself the faults of her villains you too can be a welcome companion, loyal friend and trusted confidante. Her chief rules are:

good manners are always appropriate

try to see things from the other side

remember that not everyone has had your advantages.*

She also tells us:

  • Don’t make jokes at other people’s expense Emma
  • Don’t prejudge Pride and Prejudice
  • Romance is overrated Sense and Sensibility
  • Pay attention; imagination abhors a vacuum Northanger Abbey
  • Trust your instincts Mansfield Park
  • Have your own money Persuasion
  • Advise only when asked P&P, Emma
  • Sometimes being nice is more important than being right ditto
  • Good deeds are their own reward
  • Don’t Boast Emma, NA
  • A change will do you good Persuasion
  • Everyone deserves a second chance, but not a third P&P, MP
  • Manners are more important than money (as long as you have the latter) NA, S&S
  • Nouveau riche is still riche S&S, Persuasion
  • think of how your actions will impact others P&P, MP
Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz

Exquisite courtesy hiding cynical souls. (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz as the Henry and Mary Crawford) Mansfield Park.

Manners or Manner? There is a difference. Manners are prized because they are supposed to be the outward reflection of good character and an ordered soul, which is one’s inner manner. We all know that looks deceive. The show of courtesy hides many a nasty bitch. Austen wants us to have a good manner, that is to have a way  with others that makes them feel at ease, respected and appreciated, and to express it through good manners. For helpful illustrations, simply refer to Mr. Knightly (Emma), Edmund Bertam (Mansfield Park) or Edward Ferrars (Sense & Sensibility).

Since not everyone likes the same things, or likes them for the same reasons (another lesson from Jane) let’s look at some other reasons for Miss Austen’s enduring popularity.

Style. Although highly moral and instructive, Austen is never moralistic or pedantic. She’s a good friend; reliable, cheerful, equitable and catty only when really deserved. We think of her–that is her bright and friendly narrative voice–as a character in the book. You trust her because she speaks with cool confidence and clarity, and she doesn’t judge… well, she does judge, but gayly and sparingly.  She often uses overstatement to take out the sting. Her charming way of over-stating also helps to keep incidents and responses in perspective. Some examples of this charming tendency of hers (gleaned from Mansfield Park):

…but Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of the Marines…did it very thoroughly.

it appeared to her, that as far as this world alone was concerned, the greatest blessing to every one of kindred to Mrs. Rushworth would be instant annihilation.

a family of lively, agreeable manners, and probably of morals and discretion to suit.

The best and most famous Austen overstatement has to be the opening of Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This glib avowal deftly establishes the subject matter and sets the tone. Good fun and deadly serious at the same time. Overstatement also lifts the lessons and incidents of the book from the particular to the universal. We know she is talking about everyone, including ourselves.

Gwenyth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Emma

My advise, gentle reader, is try to be less like Emma and more like Mr. Knightly.

Characterization. Austen’s protagonists aren’t just character types. They are fully formed personalities with convictions and contradictions, faults and blind spots. They are very real. Every novelist strives for realism. That is why, in its earliest forms, novels were presented as memoirs (Moll Flanders), journals (Gulliver’s Travels) or collections of letters (Clarissa). But people seldom tell the truth when they write about themselves. Austen used her objectivity as a third-person storyteller to allow her characters to examine themselves honestly and change. I can’t say that Jane Austen was the first to put recognizable, real and complex personalities on the page, but I believe she did it better than anyone else until Teddy Dostoevsky hit his stride. (He could have written Mansfield Park and she could have written The Idiot).

Discretion. Austen is an excellent example of the old author’s adage “write what you know.” What she knew was rural village life among landed gentry and country clergy, small social circles and the marriage market. This is the fodder for all her books. And although the same minor character typess and situations reappear, she always finds a fresh way to handle her material so each novel is original and unique.

The Bertrams of Mansfield Park should be ashamed of themselves.

The Bertrams of Mansfield Park should be ashamed of themselves.

Scholars have criticized Austen for not saying anything about the great social issues or political challenges of her time especially slavery. They expect the denizens of Mansfield Park to be ashamed that their lifestyle is made possible by slave-raised sugar. Slavery—the word and subject—comes up once at Mansfield and no one touches it. Perhaps the characters are ashamed. Or maybe they, and their author, have no words for the topic. Perhaps it wasn’t right for a woman to make political or moral judgements. I think it’s clear that Austen does not feel equal to the topic of African Slavery. Even today few authors have any idea how to write about slavery.

Darkness. But look again and you’ll see she’s been exploring the topic of slavery the whole time: A slavery she understood and could describe. Fanny Price isn’t in chains, but she is a kind of slave. She must do everything she’s told, be always acquiescent and grateful, and thank Aunt Norris for her insults. When she dares to display independence she’s sold down the river to her poor family in Portsmouth. (Sold down the river literally means to become a field slave; Mark Twain gives the phrase exactly this meaning in Puddinhead Wilson).

People whose lives are not their own is an Austen specialty. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill flanked by Mrs. and Miss Bates—two of the saddest characters in the canon.

People whose lives are not their own is an Austen specialty. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill flanked by Mrs. and Miss Bates—two of the saddest characters in the canon.

Fanny is one of many examples. Frank Churchill (Emma) is a slave to his selfish and demanding patrons who keep him away from his father. So is poor Jane Fairfax. As well as Mr. and Mrs. Collins (P&P) constantly sucking up to insufferable Lady Catherine DeBurgh. Anne Elliot isn’t quite so suppressed, but her life is not her own.

Britain’s constant state of war is barely touched on by Austen (but as the Napoleanic Wars are constantly in the background in her readers’ lives, says I, she she could rely on them to add the context). After Trafalgar England no longer worried about invasion, but Austen doesn’t need the threat of Old Bony and pillaging Continentals to give her novels a dark edge of desperation. For Austen, and women like her, there was the ever-present, lurking perils of Spinsterhood and Poverty.  Scarier than Napoleon by far.

Ciarin Hinds, Amanda Root

Captain Wentworth rescues Anne Elliot from a fate worse than French invasion. (Ciarin Hinds and Amanda Root in Persuasion)

Marriage was the only career for gentlewomen. To be a lady with no husband (or son) meant destitution. The dread of failure to make a match is the subtext to all Austen’s works. It sets Sense and Sensibility in motion. The Dashwood women are homeless and desperate. In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennett is described as “invariably silly,” but when it comes to marrying off her daughters, her head’s on straight.

It’s not loneliness these young women fear, its destitution, and their fear is always palpable. For Elinor and Marianne, for Jane and Elizabeth and poor Mary Bennett. For Anne Elliot who’s 27 and sired by a conceited, bankrupt boob. It is even in Emma. Although Miss Woodhouse doesn’t have any worries, the fate of the unmarried has its starkest example there in the characters of shabby-genteel Mrs. Bates and her too too chatty spinster daughter.

The lives of Austen’s women are filled with subtextual stress. In addition to making a match there’s the pressure of making a good one, that is finding a man who will respect and like you as well as keep you. Imagine gambling your whole life on a few week’s acquaintance. Life looks very pretty in Regency England, but I fancy misery was the lot for most petit gentry wives. A woman was expected to be grateful to any man who showed attention and jump at any marriage proposal. One of the few times Fanny Price shows gumption is when she talks on this topic. A proper English lady is supposed to go from one master to the next (father to husband) without a peep and with tears of joy.

Understanding the context makes Jane Austen’s achievements all the more admirable. She made gold, bright, lively and joyous (more or less) from dark material.


Kate Winslet Sense & Sensibility

Jane Austen might have called Sense and Sensibility  Desperation and Destitution. Kate Winslet as Marianne.

Un-Romantic and Ur-Romantic. Jane Austen is the unromantic romance writer. She does not paint dreamy pictures of luxe living with lavish details, dresses, rich interiors or gourmet feasts. No fashion porn, food porn or real estate porn. She rarely describes clothes, stately homes or entertainments preferring her readers to supply their fancies. None of her characters has a sterling silver toilet, rare gems or exotic perfumes (that she mentions). The only status symbol she does dwell on his equipage. Going to dinner in a carriage was her idea of heaven.

Never confuse Jane Auten with an historical novelist either. She will not tell you how to play faro, give the order of dances at a ball or explain the difference between a curate and a rector. As with the war, she doesn’t tell readers what they know.

She does not go in too much for high society either. There are no peers in the novels, just some baronets. Her characters tend to mix within their own stratum, and are respectful to their lowers. She seems to be critical of those who are too conscious of their position and allows that those with good manners should be accepted by their betters. There are few examples of people “marrying up.” Only Maria Ward makes a truly brilliant match by becoming Lady Bertram despite having just 7000. Elinor and Fanny marry clergy with comfortable livings. Emma and Mr. Knightly are social equals. Henry Tilney although richer is Katherine Morland’s social inferior. The Darcys might be called better than the Bennets because they have more money and no immediate relatives are “in trade.”

Pride and Prejudice, 1995: BBC

The Bingleys and Darcys embark on their happily financially ever after. (Crispin Bonham-Carter, Susannah Harker, Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, BBC: 1995

We may think they are, but most Austen marriages are not grand passions. Elizabeth and Darcy are the exception. Anne and her captain are highly sympathetic souls, rather than lovers. Most of Jane’s star couples marry as the best of friends—really the best a woman like Jane could hope for. It all seems more romantic than it really is, in fact she punishes passion more often than she rewards it. There some bad, or less than optimal, matches too, but it’s usually the man who gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop (think of Mr. Musgrove and Mr. Rushworth [and note the similarity of the names too {u and o}]).

We love Jane for her fascinating 3-dimensional characters and because she allows her plots to be driven by their personalities. We are fascinated by their struggles against the mores, expectations and judgement of an entire society. We are chastened to see our own behaviors displayed and corrected. Most of all we’re gratified to know that in the end there’s cleared eyed, matured and lasting love for everyone.

* Also the moral of The Great Gatsby


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