Both Smith and Kantor make an excellent case for these claims. Smith (a former writer at BreakPoint) has subtitled her book “Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman,” and she does a great job of teasing out those lessons from Austen’s novels and letters.
What the modern woman needs most of all, we learn here, is just what the women in Austen’s own time needed—and that is not necessarily a single man in possession of a good fortune. Of course, that’s what many of us are looking for, but what must come first, as Austen stressed (and as Smith emphasizes), is “becoming a woman of substance.” (19)
This includes learning to be independent and courageous while still maintaining close ties to family and friends, and being open to new relationships and experiences while remaining true to oneself. It also includes learning to be content in less-than-ideal circumstances, as Austen herself was, and to see the funny side of life, as she did. Above all, it means cultivating moral qualities like honesty, integrity, compassion, and yes, even purity, that most old-fashioned of virtues.
And if we do find a man, we need to be sure that he too is a person of good character. In fact, modern men who scoff at modern women’s obsession with all things Austen need to stop and rethink what they’re doing, because the truth is, Jane Austen is the best friend they’ve got. That is, if they’re the sort of men who are truly worthy of a good woman. The Romantic craze for “bad boys,” the effects of which can still be felt in our own time, was something that Austen would have scorned; she believed that women could only be genuinely happy with good men.
As Smith interprets Austen’s writings, “When your happiness depends in large part on the nature of the person you’re with—as it still does these days, no matter how different our lives are in other ways—you want to make sure that guy is a good guy.” (74)
So every “good guy” who feels like he’s invisible to the fairer sex should hope for a woman who loves and understands Austen’s work—not just a woman who goes crazy over Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt, but someone who really gets the stories and their implications—because that’s exactly the kind of woman who will appreciate him.
This focus on character particularly resonates with the Christian woman, and that’s no accident. Austen was, after all, a Christian, though many modern readers tend to overlook or forget about her faith. But Smith makes it clear that both Austen’s awareness of sin and her belief in grace stem from that faith:
She wanted herself and her characters to be aware of their “every evil habit,” to know themselves clearly. She would want that for us as well.
If Austen is anxious that we recognize our own faults, she doesn’t want us to brood on them unceasingly. Again, this comes in large part from Austen’s Christian faith, which emphasized grace and forgiveness. . . . [She] wouldn’t condemn her dear heroines to misery for their faults. (36)
In “The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After,” Elizabeth Kantor echoes this emphasis on good character. But she expands the focus on romance, offering many wise and practical relationship guidelines drawn from Austen’s writings. Kantor acknowledges that, as much as women’s lives have changed over the past 200 years, we need to remember that love still matters, and still has a life-changing power.
Granted, modern trends have stripped away many of the consequences that used to depend on women’s choices about men—our reputations, our financial security, even whether or not we’ll have children. But a large proportion of female happiness in the world still depends on how we manage our love lives. Everything that sex education, no-fault divorce, modern contraceptives, and anti-depressants can do has been tried. We’re left with the stubborn truth that love can still break your heart and mess up your future. . . .
[Austen] saw the problem very clearly. She just wanted to solve it differently. Jane Austen didn’t think we could make it all better by becoming cynics about love—by trying to isolate sex with all its complications from our serious hopes for our lives because we’ve given up on the bliss love promises. She wouldn’t see the point of trying to limit romance to a recreation, instead of a chance for “permanent happiness.” She was more ambitious than we are. (73-75)
So Kantor’s book makes good and valuable reading for modern young women who need a fresh perspective on matters of the heart.
If her book has a flaw, it’s a tendency to put Jane Austen and her era on far too high a pedestal, at the expense of other authors. She uses “Victorian” like it’s a dirty word, for instance. And because Charlotte Brontë didn’t take to Austen, Kantor mercilessly goes after Brontë, her work, her beliefs, and the horse she rode in on.
All this makes Kantor come across as somewhat limited in her vision. Of course it’s never easy to see one’s favorite author disparaged, but if Kantor could have gone off the defensive for even a few minutes, she might have realized that, at bottom, Austen and Brontë actually had a good deal in common, such as their similar spiritual and moral beliefs.
It’s at moments like this that Lori Smith’s book serves as a welcome corrective. Whereas Kantor is too inclined to hold up their shared favorite author as a paragon of perfection, Smith takes a more balanced and realistic look at her. She’s willing to acknowledge Austen’s flaws, such as the way her wit could turn malicious. And that seems a much more reasonable approach, for as a Christian herself, Austen would have been the first to admit that nobody’s perfect.
But in any event, both of these books are excellent and worthwhile reads. They remind us that—as Jane Austen knew very well—the standards and principles that lead to true happiness don’t change over the years, but are truly timeless.
Image copyright BBC.