Sunday, March 3, 2013

you may have noticed

I walked into the library one day, and a book caught my eye. 
It was called “The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After” by Elizabeth Kantor. 
Obviously, I was not gonna not pick it up. 
I looked at it briefly, approved of what I saw, and, on a whim, took it home with me. 
Now, in my ignorance, I expected it to be just another star in the dingy constellation of overly-girly-Jane-Austen-enthusiast-literature lite. Which, it being the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice, and, as I was preparing a pilgrimage to Jane’s house in Chawton, I thought: oh why not
(It was also a welcome break from Hobbes, Swift, and Pascal.  Lovely gentlemen, all, of course. 
But a girl cannot live on Enlightenment Philosophers alone.) 

Instead, I was welcomed by a first line worthy of a book about the Queen of First Lines (It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, in possession of a large library, references the first line of Pride & Prejudice ad nauseum.)
 “Why do women love Jane Austen so much?” 
Elizabeth Kantor starts the question that most people gloss over unsatisfactorily. 
A contigent of bodies have decided that Jane Austen is modern, and that’s why the modern woman is obsessed with her. 
But Ms. Kantor digs a little deeper. 
“Jane Austen, I found myself thinking, fascinates us not because we recognize ourselves in her books. It’s just the opposite.” 
(Words: Ms. Kantor, emphases: mine)

We are attracted to Lizzie Bennet, because despite all our liberation, magazines, ipods/pads/phones, and the post-modern brouhaha, Lizzie has something we don’t. 
So does Anne Eliot, Elinor Dashwood, and Emma Woodhouse. 
What makes them so different? 
What exactly do they have that the modern woman finds herself thirsting to have as well? 
Because that’s the point, isn’t it. We have many literary heros—but too few literary heroines to admire. One can swoon over Mr. Rochester or Mr. Thornton as easily as Mr. Darcy. 
But you don’t admire Jane Eyre. She’s admirable, sweet, and virtuous, but no one longs to be identified with Jane Eyre. (If you've always longed to be identified with Jane Eyre, Gentle Reader, then I stand corrected.)
We don’t read Jane Austen for Mr. Darcy; we read Austen for Lizzie Bennet. 
 Ms. Kantor asks: “What is it that’s hard to find in the world we live in, but available in spades in Jane Austen?” 
Ah. There we go. 
In three hundred utterly delightful pages, Ms. Kantor examines what Austen’s England has that we lack. 
True elegance, love without humiliation, taking relationships seriously, finding the middle road between sense and sensibility, respect for female psychology, and most importantly: a genuine pursuit of happiness. 
In Austen’s novels, and in our modern world, there are hosts of Bertram sisters and Lydia Bennets, Wiloughbys and Wickhams who put their dreams of settling down into a happy love on hold, to pursue the bright shiny objects in their grasp—those bright, shiny objects being sex, money, pleasure, excitement, passion—but not happiness
Pursue whatever you want, she says, but realize that if you’re pursuing anything besides happiness, you’ll end up with just that: anything besides happiness. 
Love, to quote Miss Pettigrew, is not a game.
To be skilled at relationships, we can't just dally about like ninnies. We must cultivate the loves and relationships in our lives with a calm, cool rational sense, and with warm and caring sensibility.
With a sharp wit, and sassy pen, Ms. Kantor cuts a lot of our dull modern sensibilities about romance and relationships down to size: 
“The Jane Austen heroine doesn’t try to run her love life like an occasional extracurricular activity, somewhere down the list between chorus and lacrosse practice.” 
We are born into relationships. We can either chose to practice good relationships, or idle away, hoping that we’ll one day get it right. 
So, how do we begin to practice good relationships? 
With a large dose of common sense, sweetness, and delight, Ms. Kantor uses the stories of Austen to illustrate answer that question.  Along the way, Ms. Kantor uses the stories of Austen's characters to reawaken a desire for and a commitment to a simple, but universally enchanting dream: happy love.  

“If we do love the Jane Austen way, we don’t have to give up on either love or happiness. She shows us exactly how we can have both”


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