While Jane Austen wrote about love and marriage, the basis of lasting relationships, she shows us, is rational— based in esteem and gratitude.
With nary a kiss between lover and beloved, Jane Austen wrote what are considered the most romantic novels ever written. This is noteworthy yet there’s more to such ‘self-help’ oriented writing because she gets us thinking —and I wish to encourage you also think about what exactly makes a good character…and one worthy of falling in love with. Austen’s stories stimulate our consciousness because they are set in a moral universe with characters so vivid and realistic as to pull us into their lives. They learn to see the truth—after discovering their mistaken ideas—and then try for the best course of action to find happiness. Invariably, the process they use is part of a system of meditation! Austen heroines practice meditation to achieve calmness and clarity of thought while preparing us for making better choices.
Today, it is easy to be distracted as we navigate a world full of narcissistic people, and fueled by social media. I believe Jane’s heroines are excellent mentors for real people dealing with—real jerks!—even though written 200 years ago. They go head-to-head with some pretty egotistical characters. Just consider all the mind games of the Thorpes in Northanger Abbey, or the Crawfords in Mansfield Park. Then there’s the insufferable meddling of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Pride & Prejudice. We know these people! The great thing about Jane’s young and unworldly heroines, is their ability to deal thoughtfully and heroically with the Dark Side of the Force —when required. Of course, “greatness of mind” is a rare quality in this world.
We should not be too surprised that greatness of mind is scarce in a world where people are focused on social media and consumer trends. Indeed, deep thinking is almost a lost art. Sadly, many of us are philosophically ‘hydroplaning’ our way through life, yet there’s hope as Jane Austen coaxes our intellect into gear by reminding us that it’s a metaphysically based world. Life improves dramatically when we become aware of consequences – that is, karma happens! Jane knew this, which is why her higher characters get better partners and rational happiness while the ‘lesser’ characters whose actions and words show their indifference to others, end up with, well, “less desirable” partners and awkward situations—often choosing these with their eyes ‘open.’ Jane depicts every step and every thought which lead to these outcomes. Let’s explore!
In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford was, for all his “sex-appeal” totally callous to the devastation caused by his insincere attentions to the Bertram sisters. Here is a man who intentionally raised romantic ‘expectations’ in woman so as to elicit an emotional attachment, and with no real intention to marry. Jane Austen considered this behavior nothing less than…barbaric. She presents Fanny Price to us as a timid and very socially marginalized character. Yet she is the only woman not fooled by Henry Crawford. Where does she get this bulletproof wisdom? By self-knowledge. According to yoga philosophy, wisdom is the source of happiness and happiness is based in and achieved by, self-knowledge, or as we now call it, self-realization. Our real ‘self’ is a conscious, eternal being, and not the body. Fanny is less focused on worldly distractions and thus has a better state of mind that keeps her from falling into Henry’s lies and deceptions—and he is very deceived as to his own motives and character. Fanny can see this, yet her more highly educated cousins, who absorb their minds in all the niceties of external society and polished manners cannot. Fanny is silent and observant. Her meditation helps awaken spiritual understanding. Her connection to truth (yoga) is essential. Having a practice that keeps us connected to our Source is our first act of wisdom. The first priority is to know ourselves—our self (soul or consciousness) is eternal and naturally blissful, in it’s pure state. In the beginning, even with limited knowledge, a little practice and this simple understanding of self can change our lives. It can be our saving! In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett’s life is forever changed after reading Mr. Darcy’s letter. As she discovered the truth she understood, “Until that moment I never knew myself!” Excellent breakthrough moment! By the way, in the 1800s, happy endings were the norm in any literature with a moral message. Jane Austen’s message was that happiness is the result of a good life and, even today, many people would agree with this. So as far as romance is concerned, we might wonder why movies now seem cynical about love. Love stories are not often about love, but lust-a messed up sort of love. It seems that rational happiness is not ‘considered sexy’ enough or that romantic happiness lacks realism. Yet the ‘messed up’ love story is not inevitable.
A healthier and more realistic message for those seeking romance, would be that normal, healthy love is about rational happiness in a stable relationship, and with plenty of room for comedy and error! Humans, along with some animal species, mate for life so why deny the possibility for humans to grow-or to have healthy romances? I believe that any message that denies the possibility of normal human relationships cannot be psychologically healthy.
I enjoy the humorous romance movies of Charlie Chaplin, for example, and usually not overly sentimental or ‘mushy’ —and Jane Austen strictly avoided excessive sentimentality. She was all about rational expectations. Pure vanilla!
The truth is, that witty and rational characters are more interesting, and their struggles also tend to inspire us and make for a better story. We can relate! Getting a few excellent heroines and heroes into the mix makes for powerful romance. Consider Pride and Prejudice, where there are not just one but two, very attractive characters. Of course they are initially presented as flawed beings. That’s okay. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are clever and endearing, and they eventually, cleverly, find their way out of their confusion by discovering the ignorance of their own perceptions. This is excellent romance! It inspires us to reimagine reality. Consider that, if romantic happiness is not to be expected, then what else of ‘transcendent’ importance do we have to live and aspire for? Another issue: I find modern films so often confusing. Many present intimate relationships based on selfish motives as completely normal, yet no one with any sense wants a relationship with a selfish jerk. It is sign of these narcissistic times that we hardly understand the basics of good relationships —or the fact that civility and respect are necessary for romantic love. This is why I love Jane Austen’s novels.
So how does Jane depict romance in a moral universe? Let’s take a look at Pride and Prejudice, one of her most romantic novels. Many folks see nothing wrong with Charlotte Lucas’ choice of Mr. Collins as a partner yet the fact is that Jane Austen meant to create a stark contrast. There is a significant difference between Charlotte’s ideas about matrimony, and the heroine, Elizabeth’s. We are first presented with what a romance should definitely not look like. Poor Charlotte Lucas chooses her marriage partner so unwisely that she leaves herself devoid of true comfort, as hers was a comfortable home “only when the owner could be forgot” and his company was so irksome that her domestic arrangements were prioritized by how well they assisted her in avoiding her husband’s company! Mr. Collins was a “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly” man and yet Charlotte would overlook everything but the ‘comfortable’ home. Charlotte’s marriage may be considered ‘prudent’ as to fortune —and that’s all! Mr. Collins, too proud of his situation, ironically tells Elizabeth that he and his wife seem to have been “designed for each other.” Truer words were never spoken as neither truly loves the other.
Charlotte explained that she was not the ‘romantic’ type yet does this really make her decision more rational? Not at all. On the other hand, Elizabeth only seems to want more than what is rational in making the declaration, “I am determined that only the deepest love will induce me into matrimony,” yet she follows through with her decision . She waits for the right person. She is not in a hurry. She shows discernment.
One more thought: Even though some may claim Mr. Darcy’s wealth was the primary reason for Elizabeth choosing him as a partner, this can be easily proved false. If her choice had been all about money and a comfortable home, Lizzy would not have rejected his first proposal. Furthermore, if she had accepted Mr. Darcy before he had changed for the better then her marriage would not have been any better than Charlotte’s and probably would have been much worse. The happy ending is in large part earned by Elizabeth’s higher character and her accepting the good advice of her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who hinted to her to be cautious and who gently seems to have corrected her bitterness against Mr. Darcy. In contrast, Charlotte did not take Elizabeth’s warning and disposed with all such higher principles. In modern language she ‘settled.’
Elizabeth considers her friend’s situation as something to think of with concern:
“Poor Charlotte! it was melancholy to leave her to such society! But she had chosen it with her eyes open;… she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.“—Pride and Prrejudice
No, they had not lost their charms, or at least not yet. Still, a thoughtful person can imagine what her life will soon become when those insignificant little charms do wear off. Here’s a link to hear Professor John Mullan present the unthinkable awkwardness of Charlotte’s marriage situation. In Jane’s description of a romance based in the ‘deepest’ love, we find love based in true friendship!