What would Jane Austen do?

Today's romantic comedies and louche celebrities set a poor example for the modern woman. So should we take lessons from a literary great instead? Emily Jupp tries Austen's morals and values for size

I blame the toxic combination of Disney and Sex and the City for my delusions about adulthood. As a teenager, they gave me a vague idea that I would transform, like an ugly duckling to a serene swan, into my adult self. Adult Me's hair would always be bouncy and her outfits would be glamorous. Conversely, I thought that friendships, my social life and finding Prince Charming would all just happen without much effort.

Of course, it's not like that. Where once I dreamt of flawless coordination, I now consider it a "good dress day" if my socks match and I avoid spilling food on myself. I've discovered the path of true love doesn't always run smoothly, experienced the perils of workplace politics and felt the loss of unappreciated friendships. Those characters I wanted to emulate – from Belle in Beauty and the Beast (bibliophile, adventurous, great hair) to Carrie in SATC (writer, funny, great hair) haven't proven to be good examples for coping in any really tricky situations. Maybe I need a new role model?

Elizabeth Kantor, author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After (£16.99, Regnery Publising), thinks that chick lit and romantic comedies, where bitching about men and soppy romance prevail, have provided poor examples for coping with modern relationships. Her book shows us how to use Jane Austen's heroines as role models instead. So, in an attempt to find my "Happily Ever After", I'm swapping Sex and the City for Sense and Sensibility, and attempting to mimic the behaviour of a Jane Austen heroine by making Kantor's book my bible.

Although she got little recognition in her lifetime, Austen has become one of our most popular authors. As Claire Harman says in her book, Jane's Fame, Austen has "conquered the world". But what can a series of books written more than 200 years ago have to teach us that's relevant for women today? Quite a lot, says Kantor. "Human nature hasn't changed all that much," she says. "That includes male and female psychology and relationship dynamics – we still have to work with people we don't find congenial. [These are] things Jane Austen was so smart about, that modern women seem to have trouble with."

On Twitter, I ask if anyone has applied Austen's morals to their own lives, as the Guide recommends. Rose Keen tells me: "I have always found 'Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!' [a quote from Love and Friendship] to be excellent advice." Another tweet tells me she actually quoted Austen during a break-up with a boyfriend of three years, telling him: "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection." So it seems there really is something about Austen that speaks to modern women.

The Guide devotes several chapters to romantic relationships. "Romanticism was an intellectual fad when Austen was writing," explains Kantor, "she makes fun of the Romantic idea of love. The love scene where you see a man for the first time and decide he is the one on which all your future happiness will depend is satirised."

So by searching to be swept off my feet, did I have it all wrong? "Yes," says Kantor. "Austen believed in everything in balance, but we have gone too far in the direction of 'is this a guy good for me?' rather than just 'is he a good guy? Is he a person I can respect and trust?'" Austen's portraits shun Disneyesque romance in favour of unions that involve delicate, slow-burning emotions. "The kind of love Elizabeth finds with Darcy is a solid basis. It's not a cold, passionless thing, but she gets excited for his moral qualities," says Kantor.

Kantor's advice sounds sensible, but a little unromantic. "Jane was not a romantic, she was a realist," says Marilyn Joice, a member of the northern branch of the Jane Austen Appreciation Society. During a talk in the genteel, Austenesque surroundings of Harrogate library, Joice explains that the author's experiences shaped her writing. Austen once rejected a proposal from someone she found repellent, but who would have offered financial security, but she also let a potential romance die out because he wasn't wealthy enough to support her. "She would want to marry for love, but she wouldn't marry without money," says Joice. Could it be that Austen was trying to justify her own decisions in her books, rather than guide readers' behaviour? I'm not sure it's right to follow her example if this is the case, and besides, her logic applies to a time when women needed to rely on men for financial security.

To make me think more like an Austen heroine, Kantor recommends I examine my conduct at bedtimes. I read one of Austen's prayers: "Have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being?" she writes, "Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity." Looking back over the day, I see I don't act in an Austen-approved manner at all. I consistently show aspects of Pride and Vanity at work, plus Control Issues and a Hint Of Paranoia. Being an Austen heroine certainly isn't easy. Kantor agrees. "They hold themselves to a very high standard. They are really stellar people."

I still don't see how it leads to the Happily Ever After that the Guide promises. Kantor explains that it's important to practise getting on with people, even those we would rather avoid, such as annoying neighbours and difficult work colleagues. "I think the more we practice delicacy to the feelings of other people, the more we develop those mental muscles that enable us in a romantic relationship to have forbearance," she explains. "Anyone who is married will tell you patience is necessary for a happy marriage."

 

So I decide to make more effort with a neighbour, and discover some interesting things, like his hobbies, which include taking his kids for nice days out and break-dancing, and about his struggle to give up smoking. "Jane Austen built her life around relationships," says Kantor, "the important points of her life were her nieces and nephews, her sisters, her community... she helped them with their novels and advised on their love affairs." I start looking forward to seeing my neighbour in his front garden, luxuriating in a cloud of smoke from "one last cigarette". I'm pleased we're getting on well, but all this business of considering other people all the time is becoming quite tiring.

Finally, the Guide says to work on your friendships. What qualities would Jane look for in a friend? "You look for character. Character means good principles and a good temper," says Kantor. "It seems obvious, but I don't think people nowadays judge people that way." She's right. My method of selecting friends is based on a complex algorithm combining who I lived with at university, whose dress sense I admire and who is most often free on a weekday evening for a spontaneous pub session. Kantor says I should find a friend who demonstrates "right conduct". They should have good principles and self-control. "In a friend, and a man, those are the things you should look for."

It all seems a bit earnest for me, but I do have a friend who always puts her friends and family first. I'm sure Austen would approve. It's her 30th birthday, so, in a final effort to become an Austenite, I turn up at her house, ready to tell her how wonderful she is. "Where's Rachel?" I ask a stranger who's wearing only a bath towel. "In the hot tub with the others," he says. I'm not sure Austen would approve of a hot tub party. It's quite possibly immoral... think of all those people who you might inadvertently tease by sharing the hot tub with them! What should I do? What would Jane do?

I suddenly realise I don't care. I can't manage to make myself into an Austen heroine, because in the modern world, you need more than good principles to guide your own conduct, and it's not sufficient in your colleagues, friends and lovers, either. You also need a bit of silliness, too. I slink home, put on my fluffy slippers and, embracing my shallow side, watch an entire Sex and the City box set. They really do have great hair.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us