Want to know one of my favorite ways to gain wisdom and prevent painful consequences to poor decisions? Read Jane Austen.
I’m not kidding. The 1800s novelist who wrote (to put it very simply) love stories is a source of truth and wisdom that the modern individual can still benefit from today. Reading Jane Austen just isn’t a lovely escape into a world of balls, tea, handwritten letters, beautiful clothes, and happy endings. By following along on her characters’ often painful journeys towards virtue, love, and happiness, we can vicariously learn the lessons the characters have to learn the hard way — lessons that are still just as relevant for modern men and women today.
Your Truth May Not Be THE Truth
Oh, Emma Woodhouse. You dear, dear immature girl — I owe you a lot. You’ve motivated me to not be like you — a meddling, bullheaded matchmaker who can’t shake the hold of her imagination when looking at life. You caused a lot of pain for yourself and for Harriet by thinking that of course you know what other people are thinking and what their words and actions really mean.
When Emma gets an idea in her head, she runs with it. If something in real life seems to conflict with her idea, then she finds a way to make it fit with her idea — instead of considering that maybe, just maybe, her idea is wrong. When Emma is convinced that Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet, she excuses away any inconsistencies by telling herself that Elton is so blinded by his love for Harriet that he doesn’t see Harriet’s flaws. Or that he wants to be super-duper sure Harriet will accept his proposal and that’s why he didn’t propose to her when Emma created the perfect opportunity for him to do so.
Emma is so convinced that her version of events — her truth — is THE truth that when confronted with the undeniable facts of Elton’s romantic interest in herself and not Harriet it results in a painful episode and long-lasting awkward consequences for all three people. Emma had to learn the hard way that when life bumps up against your ideas and opinions, you have to be willing to consider that maybe your ideas and opinions are wrong. Your imagination and thoughts might not actually be corresponding to reality. Your truth might not be the truth.
Principles Aren’t the Same As Virtues
Mr. Darcy, the proud but eminently popular (among Austen’s readers) romantic interest, also has to learn the hard way (I mean, let’s be real, most of Austen’s main characters have to learn the hard way). When he very rudely proposes to Elizabeth Bennet without a doubt of her acceptance and is utterly rejected, his world is shaken, leading to some soul-searching and personal growth. Darcy realizes something important, that principles (like be honest) aren’t the same as virtues (like be honest with charity and consideration for other’s feelings).
Darcy later tells Elizabeth, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.”
Darcy’s situation is a good illustration of the components of ethical behavior — the action itself (the what), the circumstances and means (the how), and the intent (the why). All of the components have to be moral for an act to be considered ethical. Darcy runs into issues with the intent component. Is he a just and generous employer and a protective older brother and friend? Yes, but he often acts out of pride, not virtue. He has a reputation and a family name to uphold, so he’s motivated by pride to act well in several facets of his life to maintain that legacy. You can do a good thing but do it in the wrong manner, which compromises or negates the goodness of the deed.
Ambition for Social Status Isn’t a Good Life Guide
Social media fame, blue checkmarks, and influencer status weren’t around in Jane Austen’s day, but her contemporary society still had plenty of awareness of each individual’s social position, as well as a general idea of how much money and clout each person had. And the ambition for more money, more importance, and higher social status was definitely present. In fact, many of Austen’s “villains” are motivated by strong desires for one or all three of these things: Caroline Bingley, Mary Crawford, Lucy Steele, Mr. Willoughby, Mr. Wickham, even silly Mr. Elton.
So is Jane Austen condemning the desire to marry up or into money? I don’t think so (after all both Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do). I think she disapproves of the selfish, grasping ambition, the kind that’s so strong it becomes the focus of your life and the driver of your actions, causing you to use and/or hurt people, make immoral decisions, or debase yourself.
Human nature hasn’t changed in the past 200 years, and maybe we’re writing Instagram posts now instead of calling cards, but when we selfishly value our social status above all else we won’t hesitate to stoop to manipulation, lies, meanness, and cold-heartedness.
“You Do You” Is Not True Friendship
Mr. Knightley is my favorite Austen romantic interest, not in the least for his willingness to tell Emma truths no one else will (including her father and her mother figure, her governess Miss Taylor), demonstrating that true friendship (and true love) mean doing what’s best for the other person — not blindly supporting them in every choice.
After Emma Woodhouse humiliates the impoverished old maid Miss Bates in public, Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for her unkind words and for setting a bad example. He tells her, “Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong without a remonstrance...I must, I will, I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel.”
Knightley witnessed Emma’s unkindness, and the result it had on Miss Bates. But instead of giving Emma two thumbs up and a trite “You do you,” he remonstrated Emma out of a desire for her to grow and to do the right thing. Mr. Knightley had the wisdom and the courage to reprimand Emma, the tact to tell her why he was remonstrating her, and the history of friendship to make the truth hearable, even if it wasn’t palatable.
It was, for Emma, a much-needed check and course correction. And because it came from someone she knew, trusted, looked up to, and held as a dear friend, the remonstrance was effective. Did it hurt Emma like hell? Yes. But she needed a good dose of medicinal truth.
Mr. Knightley’s understanding of the nature of true friendship — causing Emma beneficial short-term pain by being told she was making poor choices — saved Emma from long-term pain and the consequences of hurting more people in the future and likely herself as well.
Be Careful Who You Marry — It Can Make or Break Your Life
Back when I used to teach high school English, I taught Pride and Prejudice to the seniors. Not just because it’s an amazingly well-written piece of literature, but mainly because I wanted my students to think about what a bad marriage (and a good marriage) looks like before they started dating more seriously, and there are a plethora of examples in that particular novel.
One of the reasons Elizabeth Bennet has high standards for marriage is because she sees her parents’ bad marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are very poorly matched — he’s a sarcastic intellectual and she’s a fun-loving, silly, shallow, neurotic woman. They married in their young days, when Mrs. Bennet’s lively personality and youthful beauty overcame Mr. Bennet’s good sense — basically chemistry beat out compatibility. These two don’t have enough in common intellectually to jive, so Mr. Bennet makes fun of his wife and avoids her by retreating to his library and losing himself in his books. Of the two, I would say Mr. Bennet is the more miserable, simply because he’s intelligent enough to realize and regret his mistake.
Elizabeth is also witness to the marriage of her best friend Charlotte Lucas to the silly Mr. Collins. Again, this is a mismatched marriage. Charlotte, an old maid, marries purely for economic reasons — to have a roof over her head and food on her table. (Whereas Mr. Collins imagines himself to be in love with his soulmate.) She is aware that her husband is not a “sensible man,” to the point where she physically avoids him in their home and manipulates him to spend time away from her on the daily. Yet Charlotte sacrifices much for her economic stability — firstly, she still has to have sex with Mr. Collins (yuck), and secondly, she’s subject to his circumstances of being dependent on the overbearing and nosy Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And lastly, over time, couples rub off on each other and grow to be more like each other, meaning Charlotte begins to succumb to Mr. Collins’s unreasonable submission to everything Lady Catherine tells him to do.
But the prize for the worst couple goes to Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham. (It’s not like it could have gone to anyone else.) Lydia and Wickham together are just bad — they had bad reasons for getting together (vanity and infatuation on her side, escaping debt on his side, and lust all around), bad ways of being together (creating scandal by living together before marriage, and Wickham had no intention of marrying her, i.e. he’s basically fine with ruining her reputation and her life), and bad future prospects (shallow feelings faded quickly, poor and sponging off family for money, unstable, moving around a lot). These two had plenty of vices separately, but united, they just make each other worse and keep each other and their marriage miserable.
Fortunately, Austen provides us with examples of well-matched couples in Jane and Bingley and in Elizabeth and Darcy, particularly the latter. Elizabeth and Darcy are intellectual equals and have complementary personalities. They get to know each other well before getting married. They respect each other and bring out the best in each other. Plus, Darcy thinks she’s pretty hot.
Poor Parenting Has Major Negative Consequences
One big way Austen’s storytelling differs from modern novels and movies is that Austen’s female protagonists are still living at home. This family context adds a significant layer — we can often trace the flaws of the female protagonists and their siblings back to their parents’ flaws and parenting style.
Take Mr. Bennet as a prime example. As much as I love his sarcastic sense of humor, he’s kind of a terrible dad. His personal flaw is to selfishly value his convenience above all else. This leads to an aloof parenting style, keeping him at a distance from his daughters that prevents him from shaping their characters in a meaningful way — even though he isn’t blind to their faults. His hands-off approach permits his youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia to run wild and boy-crazed after the officers stationed in their town. Mr. Bennet’s failure to act in his daughters’ best interest, even though it would have been uncomfortable and difficult for him, is a failing in fatherly duty and love that ultimately culminates in Lydia’s elopement with the scurrilous Mr. Wickham.
Mr. Woodhouse is another father who fails to teach his daughter an important life lesson — that love may overlook flaws, but it isn’t blind to them. Mr. Woodhouse treats Emma as perfect, so Emma thinks that loving someone means thinking that they’re perfect. His lack of awareness of Emma’s flaws and imperfections leads (quite logically) to a lack of motivation to improve in Emma. If her father and her (equally guilty) governess had encouraged personal growth and enforced boundaries (and piano practice and reading), then Emma would have had more self-discipline, self-knowledge, and humility — three qualities that would probably have prevented much heartache for her.
Austen shows the huge impact that family of origin has. So to be a good parent, you can never stop striving for personal growth and virtue because the fruits of your failings and your virtues will be seen in your children.
Jane Austen was a wise woman. We may have left the age of horse-drawn carriages behind, but human nature doesn’t change, allowing us to continue to enjoy and be edified by Austen’s novels today.