I think I smell a book deal, guys. See, here’s the pitch: fanciful, independent single girl uses her favorite Austen novels as a dating Bible for one year, following the practices and advice therein in her search for her very own Mr. Darcy. Are you listening, Publishing? ‘Cause I think this is a hit.
Actually, I think I can predict what happens to Our Heroine at the end of the year: approximately nothing.
If we’re talking about the process of meeting, signaling interest in, and successfully navigating a social relationship with a man, there’s shockingly little about the Austenian courtship ritual that lends itself to great romantic success today—no matter how universal Jane’s themes are. Mutual love and respect? Yes and yes. Actually meeting a dude? Yeah…good luck with that, ‘kay?
I suspect a year of Austen Dating would involve a lot of the following:
- Lady pastimes: sketching flowers, embroidery, knitting, playing the ever-popular pianoforte, singing in preparation of any upcoming social gatherings (OBVIOUSLY). Probably not a lot of wearing halter tops to sports bars, hanging around the produce department in search of gentlemen with above-average pineapple-choosing skills, retooling the old OKCupid profile, or any other activities likely to attract, or, for that matter, come into the vaguest contact with, a straight and single man.
- Waiting for various gentlemen to visit unannounced, then pretending as if she were not waiting for various gentlemen to visit unannounced
- Casting suggestive glances in church
- Writing cordial, hopeful, but generally unspicy letters, which then take like three days to arrive, ONE WAY.
- Dancing? Dancing! Whether this kind of merriment/social scouting is permitted to take place in a modern setting—or at some kind of Regency event, which is where we meet ALL our men—would have to be in our heroine’s publishing contract. Either way, expect a lot of group social dances. Really, though, what club kid DOESN’T like a nice reel?
- Picnics, which actually sort of translates, depending on the number of J. Crew lobster pants our heroine owns. This, by the way, defies the odds of the previous five points and indicates a certain degree of success. This is like second base.
- Heartbreak when the picnicking partner turns out to be some kind of low-grade pedophile. How will we ever love again, except for that nice but unusual neighbor we keep seeing around?
- Walks in the countryside, which we all know is mostly code for “prime check-out time” and possibly more—depending on the level of sluttitude—but probably not a LOT more. By this time, you’re basically living together, so you’d better ask a lot of questions before you grab your bonnet and head out the door.
And…well, that’s it, unless we’re talking “morning wedding.” Top hats and tails! Which might make a really excellent end to our blog-to-book journey—beautifully photographed, of course—except for the part that now our heroine is contractually required to fire up the Regency mommy blog. On to the sequel!
You’re welcome, Books.
Let’s begin with a story.
Once upon a time, a young man (we’ll call him Shmitzwilliam Farcy) and a young woman (Belizabeth Shmennet) hated one another. Only, over the course of time, they actually came to love each other—go figure—and to overcome the personal barriers standing between them and a life of deep mutual respect and affection. Wonderful! Too bad poor Shmitzwilliam was obligated to marry his sickly cousin and too much of a weenie to stand up to his crazy rich aunt! He ditched Belizabeth, and they both died unloved and unfulfilled.
I love a good love story. Don’t you?
I’ve been reading lately about Jane’s happy endings. Verdict: there are a lot of them. As far as her star couples (I’m tempted to say “ships”; thanks for that, Miss Osborne) are concerned, Jane deals exclusively in true and lasting love between the people that deserve it most; any hints of final sadness are relegated to side-dish relationships (Mr. Collins/Charlotte Lucas, for example; possibly also Lydia/Wickham) and not much mentioned in the first place. How does this consistent promise of happiness play in our postmodern culture, where we often doubt the depth of stories where everything works out well? Can we trust the truth of all this happily ever after?
I’m currently re-reading Persuasion (because it’s wonderful, and because there’s nothing like running an Austen website to remind you of all the Austen you don’t remember), and let me be clear: Persuasion requires a happy ending. The expectation of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s love resuming after all these years gives the novel shape; without it, there can be no passage of time or change of cirumstance, only chapter after chapter after chapter of resigned pining, forever and ever, amen. In that case, it’s not so much a story as a meditation on grief and on unmet needs—we have to believe that Anne would continue to soldier on, but this is a woman still mourning (at heart, if not publicly) after eight years. Something has to change; the sadness and the tedium of all that pining, without the relief of a happy ending, would kill the reader if not the characters. Certainly people do write novels meditating on lost love, on loves that are never found, but even they have more going on than Persuasion minus the final, happy reunion.
It’s unclear whether any of Jane’s other novels would do any better with a sad or ambiguous ending—if Emma Woodhouse were required to work further to earn Mr. Knightley’s love, for example, or if Bingley and Jane never quite got their timing straight. Perhaps, after all, none of Jane’s novels can have ambiguous endings. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an ambiguous ending with Jane—considering the emotional and sometimes practical stakes that her heroines face, maybe anything less than a happy ending must be considered a tragedy. (In Jane’s time, anyway, ambiguity was not a popular choice for endings—emotionally mixed finales wouldn’t come into vogue until the advent of the Modernists and their fragmented, topsy-turvy ways. Until then, the choices are pretty much Austen happy or Hardy crushing.)
In any case, happy endings aren’t totally the point for Jane—her best work is not in the end (delightful though it may be), but in the means. She’s an observer and a cataloguer of love and its power to change people, and happy endings provide some security for that study—a safe place from which to examine the psychology of love. (She could, of course, have written about the psychology of sorrow instead—of loss and permanent loneliness. After all, Jane herself never married. But would this have shown more depth than a consistent observation of success in love? Doubtful; also, far less fun to read.) If Jane’s heroines don’t end up with the “right” guy, the entire tone of her work–of all her works, collectively—changes; if Anne, for example, finally recovers from her original attachment to Wentworth and learns to love herself for the capable and independent woman she is, then it’s not a study in love and strength of character anymore. It’s a coming-of-age story. If Mr. Knightley moves on, unable to handle Emma’s consistent brattery, that‘s a cautionary tale, not a meditation on love and personal change. They might be fine stories, and they might appeal to our modern sense that everything shouldn’t wrap up so neatly, but they lack the basic frame for observing the human heart, as Jane does.
Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’m going to go read the end of Pride and Prejudice, just to make myself feel better.
If we in the twenty-first century have learned nothing else from Jane’s works, I like to think we’ve picked up a few things about the silent connection between a man and a woman—namely, that the wink wink nudge nudge telepathy route never, ever works. Romance by osmosis sounds good, sure, but the pitfalls (and the casualties) are many and varied: What? You think he likes you? You think he wants to marry you? Too bad you accidentally scratched your nose at the wrong moment, and now he’s scamming on your rich-but-dumb-as-a-brick cousin. Off to the poorhouse with you and your male-heir-less family!
If only the denizens of Austenland could learn a few communication skills—say, a few well-known (if nonsensical and/or blatantly sexist) phrases to start the conversation and get everybody on the same page. Not enough to betray real emotion or actual devotion, of course—what kind of sap do you take me for?—but enough to signal clearly the moment when a young man’s fancy turns to love (or at least an appreciation of those surprisingly low-cut gowns). What these people need is a healthy collection of pick-up lines.
“You must be tired—you’ve been doing laps around my brain all night in an attempt to show off your figure (but, you know, you can’t do that and appear secretive at the same time).”
“Did you clean your gown with silver polish? For I can see myself in your muslin.”
“Pardon me, miss. Do you enjoy balls?”
“Do you believe in love at first sight, or shall I rescue you from another thunderstorm?”
“Would you care to come back to my place and see all the furnishings so graciously provided by Lady Catherine de Bourgh?”
“I’m sorry, but I seem to have misplaced the calling card I send before arriving at friends’ homes for unannounced social visits. May I borrow yours?”
“I may be a retired sea captain, but you should see my telescope!”
“I haven’t seduced any very young women, refused to marry them, and left them disgraced and penniless.”
And the all-time most successful (or is this just us?) pick-up line in all of Austenland:
“Hello, I’m Mr. Darcy.”
What do you think, readers? Hit us with your best (and by “best” I mean “worst”) shots!