The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.- Northanger Abbey, 1817
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are some of the most widely-read in all of literature. Her work regularly appears on popular must-read lists, is a staple on English literature syllabi, has inspired tabletop and online role-playing games, and is even invoked by the U.S Supreme Court in quibbles over language. Austen has also notably saturated the literary and film/television markets with a flood of adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels ranging from Andrew Davies’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (yes, that one. Take your time. *cue daydream music*) to the web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and last year’s successful retelling of Lady Susan in “Love and Friendship.”
Today mark’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and many readers and scholars across the world are reflecting on the reasons for her longevity as a literary phenomenon. For many of us who return time and time again to her novels, the answer lies in the fact that they resonate with universal truths about the human character and the joys and sorrows of life, at once encouraging us to laugh at ourselves and challenging us to scrutinize our failings alongside our admirable qualities. I myself have written about how my exposure to Austen at a young age shaped my reading tastes and taught me what it meant to be a feminist before anyone had even formally introduced the word into my vocabulary. Today, then, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Jane Austen, here are 10 life lessons her novels can teach us.
1. A runaway imagination rarely leads in the right direction
Northanger Abbey (1817) is often dubbed Austen’s satirical foray into fanfiction via young Catherine Morland’s fascination with Gothic Literature. When Catherine, captivated by the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, receives an invitation to stay with her new friends, the Tilneys, at Northanger Abbey, she’s quickly carried away on a wave of mystery and intrigue, convincing herself that General Tilney has secretly murdered his wife. While she does still manage to snag the generals son Henry for a husband in the end (because of course), accidentally accusing one’s would-be father-in-law of murder isn’t the best way to win his affection. Here Austen satirically cautions us not to fall victim to our imagination and let fancy override good sense.
2. Pride goeth before a fall.
“Pride, where there is a real superiority of mind, will always be under good regulation,” declares Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813). Unfortunately, however, he fails to keep his own pride in check during his first ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”
Who could accept such a charming declaration? Good day, sir. I said good day. If Darcy learns one lesson here, it’s that thinking too highly of yourself won’t endear you to anyone. Never approach a goal in life as if it’s a settled thing; work hard to earn the respect of your family, your friends, your colleagues and, of course, your spouses.
3. Never presume to know what’s in a person’s heart better than they do themselves.
Emma Woodhouse, the titular character of Emma (1816) thinks she’s doing Harriet Smith a favor when she tries to separate her from the gentleman-farmer Robert Martin, with whom Harriet is in love, and match her up with the vicar Mr. Elton. Little does she know how deeply Harriet and Robert care for each other. While everything turns out well in the end (as it usually does in Austen’s universe), Emma’s interference comes with much heartache and embarrassment for all parties involved. Support the decisions of your friends; voice your concern when appropriate, but never presume to tell anyone what to think or how to feel, particularly in matters of the heart. Not to mention, when you spend so much time looking into the hearts of others, you risk silencing the still small voice in your own. All’s well that ends well, of course, because to paraphrase Sarah Vaughan, whatever Emma wants, Emma gets.
4. Hold fast to your right to make your own decisions.
Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park (1814), often gets shunted to the side in discussions of Austen’s heroines; she doesn’t possess Lizzie Bennet’s wit, Anne Eliot’s self-command, or Emma Woodhouse’s charm. She cowers in the presence of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, is practically her aunt Norris’s personal servant, and doesn’t even voice any objection when Mrs. Norris insists that Fanny doesn’t need the luxury of a fire in her room because she must remember her place. Yet when she truly thinks herself in the right, Fanny possesses just enough self-confidence to stand her ground, even if she’s shaking in her shoes as she does so. Consider the moment when she stands up to her uncle when he insists that she accept Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. Lucky for her that she refuses, since Henry later runs off with Mariah Bertram not long after her marriage to Mr. Rushworth, plunging the family into scandal. Close call, Fanny. Timid she might be, but Fanny Price still reminds us to stand firm in our convictions and protect our interests.
5. Learn when to hold your tongue.
Yes, we’re looking at you, Mr. Collins. Nobody likes a windbag. His excessively eloquent speeches in Pride and Prejudice do little more than fill already stuffy ball rooms with more hot air. Likewise, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s maiden aunt in Emma, prattles away to the amusement (but more often irritation) of her neighbors. The danger of mindless chatter is, of course, saying too much, as when Mrs. Bennet speaks so loudly and presumptuously about Jane’s possible marriage to Mr. Bingley that she unwittingly harms all of her daughters’ chances of marrying with her uncouth manners. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and learning the difference between the two is a social survival skill worth cultivating.
6. Keep your head in a crisis.
Anne Eliot knows all about this one; anyone who has read Persuasion (1818) will recall Louisa Musgrove’s ill-fated leap from the cob so that captain Wentworth can catch her in his arms, only to wind up with a nasty head injury. While everyone else flails in panic, fearing Louisa is dead, only Anne has the sense to remain calm and give directions about carrying her to the nearest inn and fetching a doctor. While being the only one in the group to keep your wits about you means that everyone is apt to rely too heavily on your judgement, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that when cooler heads prevail, you can solve problems more easily.
7. Never underestimate the power of a well-written love letter.
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years 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.
Yes, Captain Wentworth, this one goes out to you. When Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth reunite at the conclusion of Persuasion, more than eight years have elapsed since Anne broke off their engagement, acting on the advice of her godmother, lady Russel. If we think her unwise, we can forgive her because, after all, she was only 19; nor can we entirely blame Captain Wentworth for being, in his own words, weak and resentful. She did chuck him, after all. Fortunately for them, he swallows his pride and pours his heart and soul into a love letter with an offer that she really can’t refuse. In this age of social media, emojis, and online dating, when the love letter seems to have become a cultural artifact, it’s worth remembering the value of a few well-chosen words.
8. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you.
This is basically Sense and Sensibility (1811) summarized in one concise sentence. When Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby, the young man who has been paying her attention, is actually engaged to another woman with a larger inheritence, anyone with an ounce of human sensitivity can’t blame her for feeling crushed, but walking about in the rain and intentionally catching such a severe chill that it nearly kills her seems a bit extreme. No man is worth that much. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve, but over-dramatization and self-martyrdom never does anyone any good. Still, once again, more sensible heads prevail in the end (we love you, Colonel Brandon, flannel waistcoats and all).
9. Sisters before misters.
Elinor Dashwood, who plays sense to Marianne’s sensibility, would probably have quite a bit to say about this contemporary maxim; while Marianne is wringing her heart out over the worthless Willoughby, Elinor is secretly and silently nursing her own heartache. She spends several months during the course of the novel concealing her knowledge that Edward Ferrars, whom everyone, including Elinor, believes to be attached to her, has been secretly engaged to one Miss Lucy Steele. Her silence speaks volumes about her loyalty both to her own sister and to the bonds formed when women share confidences. Cautioned by Lucy not to breathe a word of the engagement, Elinor solemnly keeps her word, despite being none too fond of Miss Steele.
Marianne speaks sensibly, perhaps for the first time, when she declares, “How barbarous have I been to you! You, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be suffering only for me.” That’s right, Marianne; the sun called, and you are not, in fact, the center of the universe. She, not to mention the rest of us, could learn a lesson from Elinor about self-sacrificial love.
10. Live life according to your own dictate.
Lizzie Bennet says it best when she refuses to promise Lady Catherine never to become engaged to Mr. Darcy not only because she shrewdly suspects that he’s still in love with her (which, you know, he totally is), but because she refuses, in proto-feminist fashion, to let anyone else decide her destiny: “I am only resolved,” she declares, “to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to anyone so wholly unconnected with me.” The takeaway here is simple yet profound; never allow anyone to dictate the choices you make about your own happiness. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Lizzie’s self-determination here carries tremendous risk given that, as Mrs. Bennet continually reminds her, her fate and that of her family depends largely on her ability to secure a rich husband. That said, Lizzie can still remind us never to sacrifice self-respect for the sake of pleasing others, and to never allow anyone to convince us that we’re undeserving of the best life has to offer. (Can we say mistress of Pemberley, anyone?)