Friday, March 20, 2015

Thank You, Jane

Last week, I was reading Persuasion by Jane Austen. One morning on the train, it once again struck me how realistic Jane Austen's situations and characters are--especially for a single, Mormon, 20-something trying to navigate the perils of dating in Utah YSA culture.

Ironically, just a few hours later, I stumbled across this on Pinterest:
From here
I was kind of in shock, because as much as I adore all of Austen's literary love interests, I had just been reminded that morning that there is nothing unrealistic about any of the expectations or situations that Austen presents--or that Austen herself lived. In fact, Miss Jane Austen actually has given me realistic expectations about men and dating: expectations that are not overly romantic or sugar-coated but still full of hope (albeit struggling sometimes) in my own financial, personal, and romantic future.
I mean, just think about it a little bit. Let's start with the most famous: Pride and Prejudice. Yes, almost every woman loves Mr. Darcy. But whether you prefer Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, or (my personal favorite) Daniel Vincent Gordh, Darcy starts off as a very awkward introvert who comes off as a jerk and sometimes even actually really thinks those jerky thoughts. He is far from perfect; he is a real human being who makes mistakes, and Lizzie has to learn who he is and how to forgive and love him. It's not an easy path for them.

And before we can even consider Darcy romantically, we have to go through Mr. Collins and George Wickham. And here's where the dating crap gets really real. You have Mr. Collins, who is awkward and seemingly over-the-top and so focused on finding a wife and . . . well, I could go on, but we know how long-winded I can get. In short, Collins is a good person (yes, he really is), but he's just not right for Lizzie. We've all been there. And then there's Wickham. Almost everyone I know has a Wickham from some part of their lives: a guy they really liked, who charmed them, but was really just lying or using them or was too immature to know what they wanted.

And all this isn't even delving into the fact that Lizzie is so imperfect herself. It doesn't touch on the Jane-Bingley situation, or the exploration of Charlotte's "settling" with Collins and whether or not she (or anyone) could actually be happy in that situation. It's ignoring the complex family relationships, such as Lizzie's crazy mother or Caroline Bingley. It's skimming past all of the other novels and their relationships. After all, each novel portrays very different situations and characters. I could dissect all of them: Edward Ferrars vs Colonel Brandon vs Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, Philip Elton vs Robert Martin vs Mr. Knightley vs Frank Churchill in Emma, etc. The point is that Austen's romances are real. They're hard, they're rocky, they're fraught with heartbreak, and although they end happily for the most part, it's not an easy road to get there.

And what are the reasons the road is so hard? Why do relationships not work out in Austen's novels? Oh, there are a lot of them. Timing, unfounded snap judgments, people being downright jerks, age gaps, meddling friends and family, desperation, conflicting feelings between the parties (one is feeling it and the other isn't) . . . does any of this sound familiar? Because it sure does for me. There's a reason modern-day adaptations of Austen's work such as the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Emma Approved (which are both fabulous and you should watch them) work so well. It's because the characters and the situations are so realistic that these stories can be so easily transported into our current culture. In short, while love is wonderful, dating itself sucks, and Jane Austen (who died single at the age of 41 during an age when it was much worse to be an old maid than it is now) knew that.

All of that being said, let's return to Persuasion. Persuasion was Austen's last novel, which makes it even more hopeful and humbling to me. It's about Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old woman who still loves the man she turned down (on advice of an old family friend and mother figure) 8 years previous. She seems to have lost all hope for marriage or even for happiness in being single. When Wentworth comes back into her life, and as she tries to manage the terrible world of dating and adulthood, she grows and becomes hopeful.

Anne is one of my favorite Austen heroines. She's fiery and opinionated, but in a very quiet and subtle way. If Lizzie or Emma or Marianne are the burning blaze, Anne is the glowing embers hidden under the charred log. The fire isn't readily apparent, you have to dig to find it, but it's there and it's bright and it's warm. She is smart and accomplished, but very humble. While more introverted and preferring to be in the background, she loves people and being around them and helping them. She is kind and sweet, and although she is single at an old (for that time) age, many people love and admire her. In fact, Wentworth was/is not Anne's only option for marriage; she has/had quite a few other suitors. But she wanted and needed to do what was best for her. 

So, Persuasion and Anne's journey are about choice and love and friendship and self-discovery and self-actualization. It is about realizing who you are and what you can do and that you can competently run your own life. And it is especially about hope: hope in yourself, hope in others, hope in forgiveness, hope in love, hope in the future.
I know this was long, but this, this focus on hope and the possibility for love of all kinds (romantic and otherwise) to bloom in a world full of imperfect people, is why Jane Austen did not give me unrealistic expectations for men or life in general. How brilliant is it that her characters are so real and well-rounded. After all, her heroines and heroes each have many faults. She shows many different types of real, flawed, and (mostly) loveable people. And while the happy, good endings exist, it takes a lot of crappy, horrible dating stories to get there.

In Jane Austen, love is not easy It's not a fantasy. It is very, very real in that it is not easy. It is hard work, forgiveness, humility and admitting that you're wrong, and vulnerability. But most importantly, it is hope that someday, somehow, we'll be able to get past all of the mess and find happiness and love in all our relationships.

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