What did Jane Austen really believe about love?
The first expensive book I ever bought for myself was a lovely gold-embossed book containing both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I was a teenager browsing a used bookstore, and I fell in love.
Then I remember in 1996 sitting in my son Christopher’s hospital room when he was ill, and just flipping through TV channels one night and finding a show where everyone was dressed in very old clothes. I watched for a few minutes and thought, “this sounds familiar!” And sure enough, it was the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice.
That’s since become a family favourite. My daughter Katie can quote the whole thing–all five hours of it, pretty much.
So we’re big Austen fans. I’ve read all the books at least 5 times each (I still think Persuasion is my favourite). I love her.
And so recently Keith and I watched the movie The Jane Austen Book Club. I was afraid I’d be disappointed (will they ruin Jane!?!?), but I was actually pleasantly surprised. Basically five women and one guy get together to read each of Austen’s novels. Meanwhile, their lives are all messed up, and they have to make some decisions of the heart themselves.
It’s not a Christian movie, and there are some questionable (and seemingly unnecessary) storylines.
But here’s what I liked: All of them were tempted to do things which would have messed up their lives even more–have affairs, never fall in love, divorce. And in the end, they all made the right decisions because that’s what “Jane would have done”.
Stability, honour, dignity, love, were all things which were intrinsic to her writings.
Giving in to temporary passions was an anathema to Austen, and in turn each of the characters in the movie realizes it.
Now, here’s what I really wanted to comment on. At the end of the movie one of the women whose marriage ends up saved is obviously pregnant. They don’t comment on it, but it’s clear she is.
Austen doesn’t talk about babies. All her books end in weddings. She didn’t know much about what happened after that, since she never married herself, and weddings were what she dreamed of. But in her brief epilogues it is clear that her characters did reproduce. Indeed, how could they not? That’s part of the stability that Austen was aiming for: not marriage to live out one’s passions, but marriage to be fulfilling, right, and stable. Stable for everyone–for the married couple; the extended family; the society as a whole.
Austen believed in love, yes. But she didn’t believe in infatuation and emotion. She believed in making wise choices.
Too often we believe Austen wrote only about love, but if you read between the lines what she’s really writing about is one’s responsibility to live up to a moral standard that lends stability. In each book there is a protagonist who epitomizes this–Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott–and a character who shows the opposite–John Willoughby, Lydia Bennett, Louisa Musgrave. We are to be proper, and in Austen’s books love comes to those endeavour to act appropriately. It does not come to those who choose momentary passion (like poor Lydia!).
That’s hardly the recipe for a 21st century romance, is it? And of course, it’s very convenient that those who are trying to be wise and live with honor also DO meet kind, responsible men who are also rich. (Yes, Jane does make everything turn out hunky dory in the end!).
But the main lesson in her books is not “love will conquer all!” The main lesson in her books is more “stick to your principles. Live with honour and integrity. And only then will you find the life that you want.”
That’s pretty amazing. Even in the book Persuasion, for instance, Anne Elliott says that allowing herself to be persuaded to refuse Frederick’s proposal many years ago was not necessarily a bad decision (though I look at it and kind of think it was!). She was doing the right thing and honouring a wise mentor, and in the end, it did work out.
It’s interesting that Austen is still so popular given that the actual message in her books is quite counter-cultural. But maybe that’s because truth really is attractive in its own right, and never really fades away.
The happiest people, and the happiest society, are found among those who do play by the rules. That’s the underlying theme of what she writes. And those rules are for everyone’s betterment.
PS: None of this is to mean that I don’t believe in redemption or second chances, by the way! Only that I think we often read Austen superficially. And I think what we all want for our kids is that they choose right, from the start. 🙂
What do you think? Any other Austen fans? What do you think her central message was?