Austen’s pen was a fountain of wisdom full of insights on behavior told in her particular brand of satirical wit. Each tale includes cautionary revelations on character flaws and features the types of mistakes we humans make in the course of navigating life, love, and relationships. Today we’re going to extract twelve rules – a do and a don’t, from each of her six major novels. Note that some of her themes are repetitive and can be applied to multiple works.
Sense and Sensibility
- Do seek balance. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the models of sense and sensibility both suffer from deep wounds created to some degree by the lack of the opposing characteristic owned to excess by their sister. By the end of the novel, both of our heroines have learned, through experience, to balance their natural tendencies with a bit of the opposing end of the spectrum. Yin and Yang.
- Don’t confuse charismatic charm with goodness. John Willoughby was handsome, charming, amiable, courteous, confident, and was arguably sincere in his admiration of Marianne. He had a dark side, however, having seduced and abandoned Colonel Brandon’s ward. He knew that for monetary reasons, he wouldn’t be able to marry Marianne, so it can be supposed that his initial plan was to dally with her affections, in the same way, never expecting to fall in love with her. Austen’s novels are full of these types of men. Consider yourself warned.
Pride and Prejudice
- Do keep an open mind. We know that the original title for this work was First Impressions and that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t exactly hit it off at the start. The beauty of the story, to me, is that in spite of all the negative initial impressions, both came around because when presented with the evidence of their own failings, they were open and vulnerable to acknowledging that they may have been in the wrong. This is how we grow.
- Don’t misbehave. I speak not of the sort of “misbehavior” that gave birth to civil rights movements, but rather of the sort that hurts people as a consequence of undisciplined or selfish actions. Wickham’s jealous lies, Caroline Bingley’s manipulation and back-biting, Mrs. Bennet’s gossip, Mr. Bennet’s indolence, Lydia’s wild behavior, and Lady Catherine’s self-centered determination to control everyone within her sphere of influence all carried far-reaching repercussions. Don’t be that person.
- Do trust your moral compass, and stand your ground. Although Fanny Price is often cited as the least interesting Austen heroine, I personally find her the most inspiring. Fanny knew her place in society, and she knew what she believed and valued. She had the courage to be willing to sink even lower in the social order and give up many privileges rather than cave into pressure to violate her convictions. In the end, after she was proven right, this strength of character won her her heart’s desire. If you don’t stand up for what you believe, pretty soon you won’t believe in anything.
- Don’t ignore the red flags in a relationship. Mansfield Park deftly reveals the courtship dance of the marriageable players. With the four Bertram siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price, Mr. Yates, and Mr. Rushworth, we have four ladies and five gentlemen circling the musical chairs. It is the Crawford duo who serve as the catalyst for exposing weaknesses, and yet Mr. Rushworth and Edmund Bertram both look the other way when the warning signs that their love interest is an unwise choice pop up. This is an important rule. When a person shows you who they are, believe them.
- Do tell your friends when they mess up. The Box Hill scene where Emma callously insults Miss Bates leads us into a moment that has higher stakes for Mr. Knightley than Emma comprehends. In spite of the belief that it could cost him standing with Emma, he takes her to task for treating Miss Bates so poorly, as kindly as he can while still making the point, and stirs Emma to valuable self-knowledge and a desire to make amends. We all need friends like that.
- Don’t use secrets to hurt people. Frank Churchill’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax makes Emma a different experience the second time around. Once you know about it, Frank’s cruelty to Jane, particularly his open flirtation with Emma, is obvious and inexcusable. Austen uses secrets as a plot device in several novels and in almost every case, the secret is weaponized in some way. Secrets have a way of hurting the people we love the most.
- Do learn from the past. Both Frederick and Anne suffered significant loss and disappointment when their first engagement was ended through Lady Russell’s persuasion against it. It was quickly apparent in the novel that neither one was over the relationship but that the pain of that rejection had made Wentworth bitter and resentful. Anne likewise was afflicted with deep regret for having broken the engagement. Fortunately, Anne knows what she wants, and in spite of Lady Russell stepping up for round two of engagement interference, Anne is not persuaded away from her choice a second time. Be a student of your own mistakes.
- Don’t give up. This might seem like a reframing of the previous rule, but it isn’t really, and it’s a between-the-lines reading of this lesson. Eight years had passed between the first engagement and when Anne and Frederick meet again. Frederick knew that the objection to his initial suit was his lack of prospects, and Anne only being nineteen. Over the course of eight years, he became a wealthy man. This didn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. Once it became apparent that his naval career was established, and especially after Anne came of age two years later, Wentworth could have returned with a better chance of success. Giving up too soon cost them dearly. Love deserves some persistence in the face of persuasion against it.
- Do be an enthusiastic adventurer. One of Catherine Moreland’s most endearing traits is her unabashed enthusiasm for going to new places and trying out new things. It’s a great way to be.
- Don’t allow your imagination to project fears or suspicions onto situations where they don’t apply. We all have things that color our experience, influences that may skew our interpretation of reality. In Catherine Moreland’s case, it was an overactive imagination combined with reading Gothic novels that distorted her perceptions. It’s important to recognize and understand what these things are in our own lives. Past trauma, cultural expectations, political ideologies, religious beliefs, and other exposures can superimpose themselves onto how we interpret our experiences. If something seems unlikely, check your imagination.
There are, of course, many more lessons to take from Austen than the ones I’ve listed here. Let’s expand the list together. State a “rule”, and give an example from one of Austen’s novels, including Lady Susan and Sanditon if you’d like, to illustrate. I’m looking forward to hearing all of your Austen-inspired wisdom.