Jane Austen is still one of my favorite authors. I have perhaps gotten over the fanciful rumination of my youth and don’t read her as often as I once did. I do still read her works though. I come back to her classic novels again and again. They give me hope for the world when things get cloudy and offer insight when I don’t know what to do.
More than this – her characters have become old friends. Her world is a place I love to visit when my own world doesn’t make sense or just when I miss Austen’s England.
So often, people ask me why I even read Austen or see it as a sign of wanting delusion. I would however argue the opposite. I don’t think Austen offers an escape – although she does at times (don’t all books?) – but I think Austen’s world is relevant even today. It can teach us so many things in our Modern world. In Austen’s world, no one would die trying to take the perfect selfie or get ghosted or have a social media shade thrown at them. While many might say this make Austen not relevant, I think her simpler time makes her more relevant that ever.
So many contemporary people wonder, why do Modern Women even read the old and antiquaited Jane Austen? What can Austen have to say to our modern lives? What can Austen give us other than unrealistic expectations of love and romance?
Well, I would counter-argue that looking to the past (even an Austen past) for guidance does not negate our lives but enrich them. Books don’t teach us what to think. Books teach us how to think.
What can Austen offer us? Everything!
I would say that Austen has taught me about life. Of the many things she offers in her novels, she teaches us that human nature is good and that, while it is weak, it is also changeable. She teaches us that good is always possible in the ones we love. In fact there are so many things she has taught me about life. Let’s look at them all.
Here are just a few of the many things that Jane Austen has taught me about life:
1. Make the best of bad situations.
Austen is all for helping people to make the best of terrible situations where they are taken advantage of or talked down to, but allow their good character to dictate what is right regardless. Fanny Price is humiliated by her relatives in Mansfield Park, but eventually her good nature wins the day and shows everyone that she was a gem all along. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland returns home in shame, but Mr. Tilney comes shortly after to prove that her good nature shone through all the nonsense.
Austen’s advice: Being a good person reaps its own reward even if it’s delayed.
2. Don’t take life too seriously.
Austen doesn’t enjoy silly people as we can see in how she represents women like Mrs. Bennet and Charlotte Palmer. However, those who are overly serious like Mary Bennet are also not ideal to Austen’s view. As Mr. Bennet says in Pride and Prejudice, “What do we live for but to laugh at our neighbors, and to be laughed at in our own turn?”
Austen’s advice: Have a balanced life – not too severe and not too flippant.
3. Unruly people don’t deserve any attention. Only people of value deserve our time.
The characters in Austen’s novels are constantly avoiding or learning how to avoid people who are unruly or basically terrible people. In Northanger Abbey, when Catherine Morland realizes Isabella’s falseness, it’s the end of their friendship. It’s Mary Crawford’s bad character that gets her into trouble in Mansfield Park and loses her Edmund’s good favor. Nothing is more true than what Elinor says in Sense and Sensibility as she dances with Robert Ferrars: “She agreed to it all. For she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational conversation.”
Austen’s advice: Save your pearls and time for people that deserve them.
4. Even good people make mistakes.
Austen to me always seems to be interested in giving good people second chances. Even the villains of Austen’s novels are allowed to have some redemption often. A perfect example of this is Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility who is allowed to justify himself to Elinor when Marianne is ill despite how badly he has behaved. Another such example is the misbehaving Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park who is allowed to experience regret from the very choices that lost him the woman he loved, Fanny Price.
Good characters are given more than their ample share of possible redemption from their mistakes and room for error. Famously, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice allows her vanity to cloud her judgment and not see the truth that is right in front of her, but she is a good person so she realizes her mistake eventually and corrects it. In the same novel, Darcy is allowed to see the error of his ways and correct his past mistakes of acting stuffy and prideful. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne has an error of judgment in how she behaves through out the whole novel but her fever gives her time to realize her mistakes and correct them. In Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s whole issue is mistake after mistake, but her intentions and nature are good. Austen not only allows her time to fix her mistakes but also gives her a just reward.
Austen’s advice: Don’t let your failure keep you from trying, even the best of us mess up every now and then.
5. Time can heal all wounds.
Time really is the best healer for all ills even errors in judgment. Perhaps the poster child for this is Marianne Dashwood, who finds Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Both characters previously jilted in love get a fresh chance to find happiness with each other. In the end, they love each other more than they loved anyone before. There are other good examples though: Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park heals from the wounds of Mary Crawford to discover love with Fanny Price; and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion realizes he is still in love with Anne Elliot and healed from the bitterness of her first rejection years before.
Austen’s advice: Just give it time, then give love another chance.
6. Love always finds a way.
After all in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot find each other again after 8 years. Real love always wins and endures. In one of the most beautiful letters of literary history, Captain Wentworth says, “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? …Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.” Enough said.
Austen’s advice: Keep hoping for love because it always finds a way.
7. Don’t let your imagination run away with you.
Austen’s novels are littered with people who let their fancy overtake them to their own personal detriment – especially when it comes to love. Catherine Morland learns not to allow her love of Gothic Novels cloud her view of reality the hard way in Northanger Abbey. Marianne Dashwood learned not to let her romantic imagination be her undoing in Sense and Sensiblity. Elizabeth Bennet learns not to let her vanity cloud her judgment in Pride and Prejudice. Take it from Austen and live in the real world not a fantasy.
Austen’s advice: Reality over fantasy every time.
8. Don’t meddle in people’s lives. Focus on your own life.
All the meddlers in Austen’s novels end up in trouble or humiliated themselves. Emma Woodhouse’s meddling gets her in constant trouble in Emma. First Emma makes Harriet love Mr. Elton then she tries to get her to love Frank Churchill only to discover that she has fallen for Emma’s man, Mr. Knightley! It’s quite the mess she makes. Mrs. Bennet’s meddling in Pride and Prejudice almost undoes all her daughter’s prospects. Mrs. Jennings meddling in Sense and Sensibility does Colonel Brandon’s love for Marianne more damage than good. All the meddlers make trouble. Don’t meddle.
Austen’s advice: Mind your own business.
9. Forgive others and be willing to give people a change to make it right.
Forgiveness of good people is key to Austen’s novels. It is often the solution to creating a happy ending. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet forgives Mr. Darcy for his arrogance. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot forgives Captain Wentworth for his early treatment of her. Likewise, Captain Wentworth forgives Anne Elliot for jilting him all those years before. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood forgives Edward Ferrars for not telling her the truth and being secretly engaged. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price forgives Edmund Bertram for loving Mary Crawford. The list goes on and on. But forgiveness is always the first step to the choice of happiness and love.
Austen’s advice: Forgive often and love more.
10. People can change if it’s for the right reasons.
Austen is careful to show us that people can change if they are doing if for the right reasons – generally themselves not others. The wrong motives are trying to change for others not yourself. Look at Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. Because he wants to change for Fanny Price but not for himself, he doesn’t act as he should and go to Everingham. When he doesn’t go, he ends up falling into an affair with the very married Maria Bertram and losing his chance at Fanny. So Austen is clear that the change must be internal and a personal choice – not external.
After all, Mr. Darcy changes once he realizes the error of his own ways in Pride and Prejudice, but he does this without any idea that he will ever see Elizabeth Bennet again. Mr. Darcy changes because he knows he should. And again, Catherine Morland changes for the better in Northanger Abbey, but also with no idea that she will see Mr. Tilney ever again.
Austen’s advice: If you change, do it for you because it’s right – not for others.
Reading Jane Austen perhaps takes me to a simpler time. When people were raised to believe in principles and honor. When obligation was not duty but privilege. When people viewed doing the right thing as necessary not optional. I mean yes, perhaps it is romantic fodder and folly, but it teaches us about life, people and good in the world.
That is my argument. Austen is still relevant because the good principles and values her novels teach are timeless and are for people of all ages in all times.
So next time you are in a sticky situation, you can ask yourself:
WHAT WOULD JANE DO?
Love, Lady M.