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10 Lessons Every 21st-Century Woman Can Learn from Jane Austen

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Editor's Note:

Helena Kelly is a professor of classics and English Literature at the University of Oxford. Her book, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, illuminates the life and work of Jane Austen and shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring – how truly radical – a writer she was.

Jane Austen was a daring, revolutionary, and, some might even say, radical woman. She defied gender roles during her time, and her wisdom is still relevant today. Here are ten lessons every twenty-first-century woman can learn from Jane Austen.

You don’t have to be Instagram-perfect to matter.
Austen’s female protagonists are seldom rich, fashionable, or jaw-droppingly beautiful. Lizzy isn’t the prettiest of the five Bennet daughters, or the liveliest. Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, only ever gets as far as being “almost pretty.” Fanny Price is painfully shy. Anne Elliot is thin and faded. For Austen, they’re all heroines.

We all have flaws.
Austen’s heroines are far from perfect – and so are her heroes. Captain Wentworth is pigheadedly stubborn. Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is led astray by a pretty face and a charming wit. Darcy’s manners leave a lot to be desired. What they share is an ability to admit to having made mistakes.

The best people – the ones worth spending time on – will take you seriously and listen to what you have to say.
Lizzy and Darcy spend a large proportion of their time verbally sparring with each other but they also take each others’ arguments on board. Captain Wentworth, having spent most of Persuasion determined to ignore Anne, admits at the end of the novel that he hears every word she says, no matter how quietly she speaks. Even Edmund Bertram, trainee clergyman, takes the time to ask Fanny for advice.

It isn’t just romantic relationships that matter.
Austen’s characters manage to maintain their true friendships under trying circumstances. Lizzy doesn’t cut off Charlotte, in spite of disapproving of her choice of husband; Anne doesn’t blame her godmother for persuading her to end her engagement. Austen, who had a large family and close friendships of her own, is very clear about the importance of relationships that aren’t romantic.

Don’t manipulate other people’s relationships.
Think of the characters who try to break people up – Bingley’s sisters, Emma Woodhouse with Harriet Smith, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Don’t be like them.

Your mother (mostly) has your best interests at heart.
We’ve all felt kinship with Lizzy Bennet in the scenes where her mother is being toe-curlingly embarrassing. But putting aside the embarrassing behavior and the favoritism Mrs. Bennet displays, she does worry about her daughters, and wants what she thinks is best for them.

Don’t be someone’s rebound.
Unlike most other novelists in the period, Austen is very tolerant about characters who fall in love more than once. However, she’s very clear that rushing from one relationship into another isn’t a good idea, even if she leaves the exact length of time that’s ‘quite natural’ and right up to her readers to decide.

Judge people by what they do, not what they say.
Austen sees the need for white lies but she disapproves of hypocrisy. Mrs. Norris, in Mansfield Park, talks a lot about charity but seldom, if ever, reveals any impulse to it. We’re told that Mr. Elton, in Emma, “may talk sentimentally but he will act rationally,” thus joining Willoughby, Wickham, and other unappealing characters who talk a good talk but only ever act in their own selfish interests.

Time spent reading is never time wasted.
Nearly all Austen’s heroines are big readers, of all kinds of books, not least novels. In fact, since very few of them have been to school, it’s reading that has taught them most of what they know. Many of her heroes enjoy reading too. As Darcy notes, extensive reading not only improves the mind but supplies you with plenty of material for conversation with other bookworms.

Relationships aren’t the only source of happiness.
Austen’s novels are love stories, and marriage is always the goal that the characters are being worked toward, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they have to teach us. They represent years of hard work and dedication on the part of their author and two hundred years later they’re still speaking to millions of readers around the world. Now that’s really a goal to aspire to.

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