I had now been in Brooklyn for nearly three years, and I had a great deal to be thankful for. I had worked out a way of dealing with my father that enabled us to have a reasonably positive relationship. I no longer worried about his approval, and I had come to accept the fact that he was never going to change. Having completed my Austen chapter and written some hundred pages on
But one thing was still missing. One big, huge thing. I hadn’t found anyone to be with. Not just sleep with, but be with. Not just a hookup, or a short-lived affair, or a summer fling, but a real, stable, satisfying relationship. Coming out of youth movement and college and the first few years of graduate school—sheltered spaces, all of them, that made it relatively easy to find a girlfriend—I was unprepared for the full horror of the New York dating scene. It was like entering an endless maze of stupid conversations, as confusing as the subway and equally bleak. Instead of meeting people through friends, like I always had, I was expected to endear myself to complete strangers—who knew exactly what I was trying to do—in the time it took to walk into a party or order a drink.
And this being New York, it wasn’t enough to be charming (not that I had a clue any longer about how to be charming). You had to be impressive, you had to look successful, you had to sound like a winner, especially as a man. What did you do? Who did you know? Where had you gone to school? I learned to drop the salient points of my r?sum? into the first five minutes of a conversation. It got so that talking to single women felt like having a job interview. Just be yourself, people would say. Be myself? Wasn’t that the whole problem?
I was spared no indignity. Blind dates. Setups. A dinner invitation from a woman who turned out to have a boyfriend and “didn’t realize this was a date.” A parade of women who liked me, but “not in that way.” “At least you’ve made a new friend!” my friends would say. “I don’t want any more goddamn friends!” I would shoot back.
One day, I struck up a conversation with a woman on the way out of exercise class—one of those miraculous situations where you’re already in the middle before you have a chance to feel nervous. She was smart, nice, interesting, pretty. When we got to the corner and seemed about to go our separate ways, we turned to each other at the same time and said, “So what’s your name?”
Her name was Pam. Pam, Pam, Pam, Pam, Pam. I thought about seeing her again all week. But the next week came, and she didn’t show up. I started to get a little desperate. Surely she would come back the following week. But she wasn’t there the following week, either. Finally, I got so distraught that I put one of those “missed connections” ads in the
Here’s a tip: don’t put your number in a personal ad. First I got a call from a woman pretending to be Pam (“Of course I’m Pam”—“Okay, so what do you do for a living?”—“Oh, c’mon”). Then I got a call from a woman who admitted that she wasn’t Pam but was hoping we could get together anyway. Then I got a call from a guy in New Jersey who wanted to commiserate about how hard it was to meet women. (“Maybe you should stop going to those singles events with your richer, better-looking friend,” I suggested.) Then I got a call from a
I did have one serious relationship during those years. It all started very romantically. I met her at the wedding of an old friend. Actually, as I discovered later, it had been a setup. She had chosen me out of a whole lineup of eligible guys that my friend had laid out—literally, with pictures—upon her request. Well, a short lineup. Okay, me and another guy. But still. It made it all seem even more romantic, when she told me—like the whole thing was meant to be.
My friend arranged to have her pick me up at the airport bus, and as I climbed into the car, we felt the chemistry right away—not just sexual sparks, but an immediate feeling of ease and familiarity and kinship, as if we already knew each other and were merely resuming a conversation that had gotten briefly interrupted. We were inseparable the entire weekend, didn’t stop laughing, couldn’t believe our luck. The wedding was in Michigan (she and my friend had just finished a graduate program together at the U of M), and when she set out for Boston right after the ceremony to start a new job, a new life, she invited me along for the ride—a spur-of-the-moment dash that seemed to have all the glamour and daring of Bonnie and Clyde making a getaway.
We traded stories the whole way, spent the night at a motel in Niagara Falls, of all places (we hadn’t even realized that it was a honeymoon spot), and as I tore myself away from her a couple of days later, swore that we were committed to making the relationship succeed, even though it was going to have to be conducted long-distance. We even mentioned the M-word—as in, “Yes, I think I would be ready to get married if things work out.” That sentence actually came out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe how grown up I was being. It felt like all that Austen was paying off, and that now I was ready for a mature, adult romance.
Well, it didn’t take long for things to go south. Fights in Boston, fights in Brooklyn, fights over e-mail (which had just come in). Fights about my feelings, fights about her feelings, fights about the fights we’d just had. Fights that spun off little subsidiary fights that had to be resolved before we could get back to the main fight. Endless phone calls where we’d talk for a few minutes until we stumbled over something to fight about, then spend the rest of the evening fighting about it.
I was so in love with the idea of having a mature relationship, of throwing around words like
Once it was over, I almost swore off serious relationships altogether. The meeting, the spark, the sense of kinship: wasn’t that what love was supposed to look like? Were my instincts that bad? And what if I hadn’t gotten out before it was too late? It was an awfully narrow escape. For someone as allergic to commitment as I was, the experience was chilling. I still wanted to find a girlfriend, I finally decided, but I was more determined than ever not to let myself get married.
Having long since finished my first chapter, I thought I was done with Austen for a while, but that was the year that all those adaptations started to come out:
Now I went back to it again, to see how such a delightful movie could have been produced from so frustrating a book. My problem with
Marianne Dashwood was everything that you could want in a romantic heroine. She was young, beautiful, passionate, and unreserved. She sang like an angel, read poetry with feeling, and took long, solitary rambles at twilight. Her ideas of love were high and exacting. “The more I know of the world,” she said, “the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love.” Not only would such a man need virtue and intelligence, but his figure would have to be striking, his eyes full of spirit and fire. And to be worthy of her passion, something still more was required. “I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.” Marianne was not just looking for a husband; she was seeking a soul mate.
Amazingly, such a man soon appeared. Running home one blustery morning to escape the rain, Marianne fell and twisted her ankle. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a gentleman rushed to her rescue, sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her to safety. He was young, handsome, elegant, and manly. His manner was charming, his voice expressive, his movements graceful. What was more, it soon turned out, he shared all of Marianne’s passions: for music and poetry, dancing and riding. Fate, it seemed, had destined them for one another. Before long, Marianne had come to feel that she understood this man as well as she knew herself. “It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy,” she said, “it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” His name was Willoughby, and they fell quickly and deeply in love.
Her older sister, Elinor, meanwhile, was involved in a romance of her own—if you could call it that. As the novel opened, the heroines were about to lose their childhood home of Norland. Their father had died, and they and their mother and younger sister were going to be displaced by their half brother, John, and his wife, Fanny. John “was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed,” and Fanny was even worse. He might have allowed the Dashwood women to remain at Norland, if only grudgingly, but she was determined to send them packing, especially once Elinor had struck up a friendship with her brother Edward.
Bland and halting and practically paralyzed by shyness, with no conspicuous talents and no particular ambitions, Edward was the very opposite of Willoughby, and no one’s idea of a lover. The poor guy wasn’t even handsome. But then again, Elinor was not exactly going to set the world on fire herself. Prudent where Marianne was passionate, merely pretty where she was beautiful, proper where her sister scorned conventional expectations, she did everything she could to restrain and downplay her feelings (and caution Marianne about not running away with her own). She and Edward had become friends, but their attachment hardly seemed to go any deeper than that.
In what counted for Elinor as an unguarded moment, she admitted to her sister that, as she put it in her typically schoolmarmish way, “I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments, and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.” It was a wonder that she managed to stay awake until the end of the sentence. Pressed a little harder, she rose to what passed with her for passion: “I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” She seemed to be willing to use every word but the one we wanted to hear. “Esteem him! Like him!” Marianne replied, as if she were reading our minds. “Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment.”
* * *
And yet it was Elinor and Edward’s tepid relationship, not Marianne and Willoughby’s wild, impassioned romance, that turned out to be the novel’s idea of true love. Elinor’s way was validated, as the plot went on to unfold, Marianne’s discredited. I understood, of course, from having absorbed Austen’s lessons about growing up, that Marianne put too much faith in her feelings, was too much of a capital-R Romantic. It took her seven exclamation points, after all, just to say good-bye to their old house. (“Dear, dear Norland! . . . when shall I cease to regret you! . . . Oh! happy house!”) Yes, Marianne was often made to look na?ve and overwrought, but that only told me how biased Austen was against her, as well as how hard the author needed to work to convince us—at times, it seemed, to convince herself—of the superiority of Elinor’s version of love. I knew that Austen wanted us to place reason over feeling, but choosing Elinor-love over Marianne-love was not about doing that. It was about choosing between two
When we think about love, we think about Romeo and Juliet, that idea of romance—just as they did in Austen’s day, just as they did in Shakespeare’s day, just as we always have and always will. We believe, like Marianne, in love at first sight. She scarcely had an opportunity to even glance at her rescuer, that very first day, but she saw enough to know that “his person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story,” and she thirsted to learn all about him. A second meeting, the next day, only confirmed what she already felt. Like Michael Corleone in
We also believe, like Marianne, that true love happens only once. Marianne was staunchly against second attachments, as they called them at the time, and thus, second marriages. Shorter life expectancies made second unions as normal in Austen’s day as divorce makes them in our own. Of course, we’re free today, as Marianne and her contemporaries certainly were not, to have as many relationships, marital or otherwise, as we want. But while we may not put the matter quite as squarely as she did, we tend to believe that only the last, only the one we finally arrive at, is the real thing. All the others were mistakes. Marianne believed that just the first connection counted, we believe that just the last one does, but we both agree that true love is a onetime thing.
Despite the way our lives have changed, we also still believe, like Marianne, in young love. At least, to judge from a host of books and songs and movies, we want to believe in it. Juliet was thirteen, not because people married that young in Shakespeare’s day—they didn’t—but because we have always imagined that true love is inseparable from the ardor and freshness and innocence of youth. Love, we think, is springtime and beginnings. Marianne was sixteen, Austen’s youngest heroine. For her, “a woman of seven-and-twenty can never hope to feel or inspire affection again”—exactly what everyone thought about Anne Elliot in
We believe in soul mates, believe that there is one true love out there for us in the world and that the stars will guide her to us. In Yiddish, they call that person your
And so, like Marianne, we think that true love means perfect agreement in taste and perfect freedom from conflict—ideas embodied in the dating sites, with their careful alignment of personal characteristics and their names like Perfect Match and eHarmony. The true lover, we think, is a second self. And thus, conversely, the loss of love is tantamount to death. Romeo, believing that Juliet was dead, committed suicide; Juliet, awakened from her deathlike slumber, ended her own life in turn.
Marianne came close to suffering the same fate. After weeks of bliss, her great affair quite suddenly collapsed, and it almost took her with it. One day Willoughby was about to propose, the next he was gone without a trace. Marianne was thrown into a fever of anxiety: what could it mean? She followed him to London, sent note after note, refused to tell her sister what was going on, and finally tracked him down at a ball, only to be jilted in the most public and brutal way (for reasons we discover only later). Now the heroine lost all interest in life, spiraling into depression and openly courting the illness that almost killed her. If there was only one true love for her, and it was gone, then what was left to live for?
Love, we think, is something that happens
And thus we feel, like Marianne, that true love is wild and free, that it knows no bounds or rules. We skip classes, make love outdoors, take crazy risks that turn us into people our friends don’t recognize. When Marianne and Willoughby first got together—this was what frightened her sister the most—they threw propriety to the wind, shamelessly displaying their intimacy for all to see, neglecting their obligations toward their neighbors (and laughing behind their backs about it), driving alone around the countryside in the most scandalous way. For Marianne—as for Romeo and Juliet, who came from feuding clans, and Paolo and Francesca, who committed adultery—true love proves itself by overrunning conventional boundaries and norms. It is, by its very nature, illicit, dangerous, rebellious.
* * *
I could certainly relate to what Marianne was going through. I had once felt something like it myself, the summer I was eighteen. It happened at camp, in youth movement, but it didn’t even wait until we got to camp to start. We were milling around the movement office in New York, waiting for the bus to take us up, when I rounded a corner and felt my face go hot. My body must’ve gotten the message before my brain figured out what was happening. There she was, sitting on a desk like she’d been waiting for me, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen—no, the
But I had managed, in that split second, to catch a look on her face that told me that it wasn’t a question of if, but when. After that, no matter where I was—on the bus ride up, during our first few days at camp—it felt as though I had a rope coming out of the back of my head that was connected to wherever she happened to be, as if she were always somehow standing right behind me. It didn’t take long before we started spending an awful lot of time together. My heart had stopped flopping around quite so clumsily by then and we seemed to be drawn together by a kind of gravitational pull. Without ever planning it, we always just happened to end up sitting together, or walking together, or finally—well, finally, we became a couple.
I was eighteen, for God’s sake. There was nothing but her face, nothing but her eyes. The summer held its breath for us. I’d never said “I love you” before, and now it seemed beside the point to ever say anything else. I walked around in a trance: I couldn’t believe that anything could feel so strong, feel so pure. We kissed until our lips were chapped. One afternoon, we were sitting there beneath an apple tree. “Do you ever feel like we’re the same person?” I said. She looked down. She looked up. “Yes,” she said.
The summer breathed out: it was over. Camp was over; life was over. I felt like I was splitting apart, like there was a hole between my arms where her body was supposed to be. She was from Texas, and still in high school. We’d never said it out loud, but we both knew that we’d come to the end. We had no e-mail, of course, no long-distance, no control over our lives and no hope of seeing each other again. Even writing seemed beside the point. The only thing that didn’t seem beside the point was curling up in a ball and trying to disappear.
So I completely sympathized with Marianne. Like everyone else, I believed in her idea of love, and it drove me crazy that Austen didn’t seem to. Or at least, she didn’t seem to in
The movie of the novel only left me more perplexed. How
The same went for the other match that ended the story—which was, in the book, even more unromantic than Elinor and Edward’s. In Austen’s version Marianne was more or less forced to marry a man she had just begun to like and certainly didn’t love, and the whole business was dispatched, as a kind of afterthought, in barely more than a page, as if to openly defy our resistance. But the movie borrowed flourishes from Austen’s other books—the surprise gift of a piano from
Now it was easy to see why both couples would fall in love. But that only left me more puzzled as to why Austen had made it so hard. The novel may have been an early effort, but it wasn’t as if she lacked the means—or desire—to write a ravishing love story at that point in her career. She had already written
And then I finally remembered two things. One was
Maybe the problem, I finally realized, was the myths. Marianne thought that Willoughby reminded her of the heroes of her favorite stories, and I had clung to that relationship because the way it started seemed like something from a movie. We had both been deluded by our expectations about what love was supposed to look like. It was
But didn’t Austen’s other books promote those same beliefs? Now that I really thought about what made them feel romantic, I saw to my chagrin that the answer was no. She made us adore her heroines and admire her heroes, made us long to see them get together, devised ingenious ways to keep them apart and finally unite them, teased us with a whole array of traps and feints and surprises, but search as I might, I could never find a single one of those clich?s in which I’d put such faith.
I had simply imposed my ideas of romance on Austen’s novels without really thinking about it—just as the people who make those adaptations always seem to do. The Keira Knightley
But Austen, of course, was way ahead of us. She knew what we’d be thinking, and in
* * *
Once I opened my mind to this possibility, it started to make perfect sense. For Elinor-love—and Elizabeth-love and Emmalove and love in all the other novels, now that I really thought about it—was perfectly consistent with everything else I’d learned from Austen: about goodness, about growing up, about learning, about friendship.
For her, I saw, love is not something that happens
Like it said in
But knowing yourself, Austen taught me, is not enough. You also need to know the person you fall in love with, and despite what Marianne and I believed, this doesn’t happen overnight. To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms. Lust at first sight, a whole train of fantasies and projections at first sight—those she recognized. But love at first sight, never. As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. Needless to say, neither a moment nor a week can suffice for such an operation; only a long, patient acquaintance is enough. A person’s character, as Marianne—and Elizabeth Bennet, and I myself—all discovered to our sorrow, could not be read at a glance. And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.
None of this happens rationally, though, as if you drew up a checklist of pros and cons—another cinematic clich?—and toted up the sum. Elinor’s way, I recognized, is every bit as intuitive as Marianne’s, and, if anything, takes place at a deeper level. Not only does love not strike you in an instant, it turned out, it doesn’t even “strike” you at all. You never know the moment that you fall in love, in Austen’s vision; you only discover you already have. “Will you tell me how long you have loved him?” Elizabeth was asked near the end of
So, I asked myself, what if Elinor and Edward had never met? What if she had “seen a great deal” of someone else? What if she had discovered that
And then, I realized, she went a terrible step further. Even once we fall in love, she said, it isn’t necessarily forever. Divorce was not a realistic possibility in Austen’s world, but death and disenchantment both were, and when they occurred, she thought, it was perfectly possible—even inevitable—to fall in love a second time. “He will rally again,” Anne Elliot believed of Captain Benwick in
“The cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments,” wrote the grandmother of romance fiction, the author who launched a score of sappy movies and a hundred sentimental sequels, “must vary much as to time in different people.” No passions, in other words, are unconquerable, no attachments exist that can’t be transferred. Our hearts can change, just like our minds. Austen believed in love, I saw; she just did not believe in it the way we want her to.
None of this was merely theoretical for her. Austen was called upon to give some real-life romantic advice at a certain point, and she put her money where her mouth was. When Fanny Knight, her favorite niece, was twenty-one, she was trying to decide whether to marry a local young gentleman, John Plumptre. The young lady had her doubts. He seemed a little stiff, a little too religious and moralistic, and in any case, she wasn’t sure that she loved him enough. So in the course of two long exchanges, she hashed it all out with her wise Aunt Jane.
The correspondence was top secret: Fanny concealed the first letter in a package of sheet music, and even Austen’s sister, Cassandra, was not allowed to be in on it. “I do not know how I could have accounted for the parcel otherwise,” Austen said approvingly, “for tho’ your dear Papa most conscientiously hunted about till he found me alone in the Dining-parlor, Your Aunt C. had seen that he
Austen examined the letters, as may be imagined, with keen attention. “I read yours through the very evening I received it,” she replied, “getting away by myself—I could not bear to leave off, when once I had begun.” This was no mean trick in such a tight-knit household, with three other women—Cassandra, their mother, and Austen’s best friend, Martha Lloyd—breathing down her neck. “Luckily,” she explained, “Your Aunt C. dined at the other house, therefore I had not to manoeuvre away from
Austen’s response to her niece’s dilemma, however, was more ambivalent. “My dearest Fanny,” she interrupted herself at one point, “I am writing what will not be of the smallest use to you. I am feeling differently every moment, & shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your Mind.” Fanny quite plainly felt otherwise, though, and in talking out the arguments on both sides of the question, Austen not only helped her niece reach a decision, she affirmed the romantic beliefs that her own novels expressed. What she urged on her readers was good enough for her own flesh and blood.
The problem was this. On the one hand, Mr. Plumptre was clearly a very worthy young man. On the other, Fanny’s affection for him, as Austen saw, was already on the decline. But as she consoled her niece, by reflecting on the young man’s qualities, for having made the mistake of thinking herself in love in the first place, Austen’s mind began to change once more:
In choosing a mate, she was telling her niece, the most important thing is character. Grace and spirit and manners—the kinds of qualities that attracted Marianne to Willoughby—are wonderful to have, but they are no substitute for the Edwardlike attributes of worth and heart and understanding. All of Austen’s heroes had the second; only a couple were also blessed with the first.
Yet talking Fanny into the match was the last thing that Austen wanted to do. “You frighten me out of my Wits,” she said at one point. “Your affection gives me the highest pleasure, but indeed you must not let anything depend on my opinion. Your feelings & none but your own, should determine such an important point.” Feelings, not arguments. You shouldn’t marry someone because of his character; you should marry him because of the emotions that his character inspires. “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen reminded her niece, “and nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound
Still, feelings can change, and we can do something about it. “The desirableness of your growing in love with him again”: it sounded like Austen were asking her niece to perform the impossible. Surely you can no more choose to grow in love than you can decide to grow taller. Yet Austen believed that if a person’s character is good, love increases with simple familiarity. She said “grow,” not “fall”—a gradual, organic process, not a bolt from the blue. “I should not be afraid of your
What was more, “It is very true that you never may attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you
Better to love than be loved—something we never had to learn from the novels, where feelings, by authorial grace, were always perfectly reciprocal. As for “Poor dear Mr. J. P.,” Austen said, “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up;—but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.” As it turned out, Fanny took her aunt’s advice, and nobody died. John Plumptre married three years later, had three daughters, and approved of
Austen was not against romance, she was against romantic mythology. No one who wrote as many novels about love and marriage as she did can fairly be accused of being unromantic. If anything, simply believing that people should marry for love, that “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound
Those were the days of the marriage market, when young people were auctioned off according to a strict system of equivalences. Men offered money and status, women offered money, if they had any, and beauty, and the exchange rates were calculated to a hair. Here was Elinor and Marianne’s odious half brother, John Dashwood, who would never have dreamed of marrying for love, handicapping the heroines’ chances. Elinor had just informed him that her sister (in the wake of Willoughby’s rejection) had taken ill:
The worst thing about this system was that no one forced you into it. Parents could pressure their children not to “marry down,” could disown them for doing it or even thinking of doing it, but the days of arranged marriages were long over. Young people had a choice, and made a choice, but so thoroughly had they internalized the values of the marriage market—marry prudently, marry “well,” don’t worry about love—that they acted just as if their parents still decided for them.
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” said one of Austen’s young ladies, “and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” “There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry,” said another. “It is a manoeuvring business,” “of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.” If happiness was simply a matter of chance, if marriage was just a maneuvering business, then you might as well go for the gold.
This kind of attitude, as much as the romantic dreams of a Marianne Dashwood, was what Austen wrote her novels to rebuke. The first of those young ladies was Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte, who went on to marry the most ridiculous—and surely, for a wife, the most distasteful—man in the world. “I am not romantic,” she explained; “I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life”—yes,
Austen was no fool. She neither demonized wealth nor idealized poverty. Among the factors weighing in Mr. Plumptre’s favor, she told her niece when she gave her romantic advice, was that he was “the eldest son of a Man of Fortune.” He may not have had much money yet, in other words, but he was going to have an awful lot eventually. “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” said Marianne, in high romantic mode. To which her older sister replied, “Grandeur has but little, but wealth has much to do with it.” All that Austen claimed—it was revolutionary enough, if put into practice—was that wealth can be no substitute for love.
In fact, her heroines did put it into practice, and so did she. Fanny Price, in
The stakes, in those decisions, could not have been higher. For Fanny Price, for Elizabeth Bennet, and most of all, for Austen herself, accepting the man in question would not only have saved them from lives of deprivation and insecurity, it would have gone a long way toward saving their families, too. By marrying Harris, as Austen biographer Claire Tomalin put it, Austen would have been able “to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days, and give a home to Cassandra,” and she would probably also have been in a position to help her brothers in their careers. She would have become a benefactor rather than a dependent, a great lady instead of a poor relation. And yet, despite it all, she didn’t do it. She valued love too much: real love, not storybook love. Valued it enough not to profane it for comfort’s sake, and to devote her career to defending it.
What about sex? Jane Austen the prudish spinster is a figure of legend and nothing more. The author who had Mary Crawford joke in
If she didn’t put sex in her novels, it wasn’t because she was ignorant of it, or frightened of it, or because people didn’t write such things in those days. In fact, they wrote them all the time. The books that she read as a teenager were ripe with lurid sexuality: abductions, seductions, cries, and caresses; bared bosoms and eager kisses; cads and rakes and libertines; slavering monks and ravished maidens, callous bawds and poxy whores; adultery, voyeurism, incest, and rape. If those kinds of things were missing from her books, it was because she chose to keep them out.
But they weren’t completely missing. In
In her age, that meant controlling their impulses, too. How her ideas about sex might have changed in a world of reliable birth control, no-fault divorce, and women’s economic independence we cannot say. It is certainly by no means clear that she would have denounced the moral standards of today. But that is really beside the point. She didn’t condemn sexual impulsiveness just because it could lead to ruin. She condemned it because she thought it was a stupid reason to get married, too. Her novels were stocked with intelligent men who’d made the mistake of marrying vapid beauties and lived to regret it for the rest of their lives.
Mr. Bennet, in
Somehow, though she died a virgin, Austen understood all this. For her heroes and heroines, sexual attraction was always the last thing, never the first. It didn’t create affection, it flowed from it. Her heroines were usually not paragons of beauty. (If we think otherwise, that is, once again, because of the movies.) Anne Elliot, in
But none of this meant that her lovers—or her stories, or Austen herself—were passionless. If that was less obvious than many readers through the years have wanted it to be—Charlotte Bront? missing “what throbs fast and full,” Mark Twain feeling “like a barkeep entering the kingdom of heaven”—it wasn’t out of bloodlessness, but tact. Sir Walter Scott himself, in one of the earliest reviews of Austen’s work, had lodged the same complaint. In
Her creator felt the same. Of course her lovers were passionate—even Elinor and Edward, as I now saw: more deeply, more truly passionate than a butterfly like Willoughby could ever understand. All the more reason, then, to shield their intimacy from our prying eyes. The most remarkable thing about the love scenes with which her novels culminated, I realized—another thing the movies never stand for—was that she always turned away at the moment of truth. The hero was about to propose, the heroine was about to accept—their passion was about to be revealed at last—and Austen knew we wanted nothing more than to hear the words that sealed their happiness. And yet she always teasingly withheld them. “In what manner he expressed himself,” we read in
What did that happiness consist of—the happiness her lovers achieved? The critic who said that friendship was “the true light of life” in Austen’s view was only, I saw, half right. Friendship, he meant, as opposed to love. But for Austen, friendship was the very essence of love. However mad the statement made both Marianne and us, Elinor was onto something after all: “I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” When I went back and looked at the other novels, I found the very same ideas. “She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him,” I read of Elizabeth Bennet, “she felt a real interest in his welfare.” “He is very good natured,” said Emma’s ditzy friend Harriet Smith, getting it wrong for the right reasons, “and I shall always feel much obliged to him, and have a great regard for—but that is quite a different thing from—.” No, I finally saw, it’s exactly the same.
If love begins in friendship, I was now able to see, it has to adhere to the principles of friendship as Austen understood them. The lover’s highest role, like the friend’s, is to help you to become a better person: push you, if necessary, even at the risk of wounded feelings. Austen’s lovers challenged each other: to be less selfish, more aware, kinder, more considerate—not only toward each other but to everyone around them. Love, I saw, for Austen—and what a change this was from the days of my rebellious youth—is an agent not of subversion, but of socialization. Lovers aren’t supposed to goad each other toward extremes of transgression, the way that Marianne and Willoughby did; they’re supposed to teach each other the value of behaving with propriety and decorum, show each other that society’s expectations are worthy, after all, of respect. Love, for Austen, is not about remaining forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.
Austen understood, even cherished, the passions of youth, but she also knew that that is all they are. “There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind,” said an older character of Marianne, “that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.” It’s natural to believe the things that Marianne and I had believed about love, but it’s also necessary, if melancholy, to give them up. Austen had respect for Elinor, but it was perfectly clear that the character she loved the most in
The only thing that’s shocking about the way young lovers act, I realized now, is how predictable it is.
True love takes you by surprise, Austen was telling us, and if it’s really worth something, it continues to take you by surprise. The last thing that lovers should do, despite what Marianne and I imagined, is agree about everything and share all of each other’s tastes. True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives. If your lover’s already just like you, then neither one of you has anywhere to go. Their character matters not only because you’re going to have to live with it, but because it’s going to shape the person
For Charles Musgrove, who married Anne Elliot’s whiny, trivial sister Mary in
And that was the most momentous revelation of all. Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it—your character, your soul. Love is more than just good feelings. A friction-free relationship, supposing that such a thing were even possible, would, I now saw, be a desert. Conflict is good, disagreements are good, even fights can be good. These were astounding new ideas to me. Committing yourself to someone doesn’t have to limit your growth; it can be the door to perpetual growth. Austen had finally done what I never imagined possible. She had started to make me feel like getting married might not be such a terrible thing.
Yet there was still one lesson more for me to absorb. Of all of Austen’s beliefs about love, the hardest one to accept was this: not everyone is capable of it. The evidence was overwhelming, once I was willing to face it. John Dashwood was not, his wife was not, and neither, I realized, were many other characters in Austen’s books—most of the Elliots, in
That was what she meant when she assured her niece, while giving her romantic advice, “I do still think you
By the same token, I now recognized, the great maker of fictional matches did not believe that most marriages work out very well. People marry for the wrong reasons, or they choose the wrong person, or circumstances are against them, or they just stop trying, or they aren’t the kind of people who should marry in the first place. After a long, perilous process of maturation and mutual discovery, her heroes and heroines could look forward to a happy future, but of the unions her novels actually showed us (parents and neighbors and so on), the overwhelming number—something like sixteen out of twenty—were failures.
So where did that leave me? Austen reassured her niece, but what would she have said to me? Did I have a loving heart, or did all of my breakups, all of my bitterness, all of my failures to stay committed mean that I was one of those people who shouldn’t even think of getting married? Maybe I had had the right idea from the start; maybe I’d been trying to tell myself something. After six years and six novels, these were the questions to which Jane Austen had brought me. But the answers, I knew, would not be found in any book.
There was one person, we can be sure, who did have a loving heart—Austen herself. That is the great question that hangs above her life. Not, how a person who never married could have known so much about love. The mysteries of genius are enough to explain that conundrum. But rather, why a person who knew so much about love, and had such a clear capacity for it, never did get married herself.
She might have been about to once, when she was Elizabeth Bennet’s age. The record of Austen’s letters opens like a novel. She is twenty, and writing to her sister in a rush of high spirits about the ball she has gone to the night before:
“My Irish friend” was Tom Lefroy, nephew of Anne Lefroy, Austen’s beloved older friend and surrogate mother, on a Christmas visit to his cousins at their home at Ashe, a couple of miles from the Austens’ place at Steventon. (Tom’s father had settled in Ireland as a young man.) Their romance evidently flared up very quickly. Three evenings were enough—three evenings of dancing and flirting and talking, of hopes and glances and laughter—to seal their mutual attachment. Six days later, the day before the ball at Ashe, Austen wrote to her sister again:
The feeling, as always, was hedged by a laugh, but it was no less in earnest for that. The moment of truth, Austen felt sure, was about to arrive. “I look forward with great impatience to it,” she said of the next day’s ball, “as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening.” Yes, an offer—a proposal.
And yet it was not to be. We do not know what happened that night—the record of Austen’s letters breaks off at that point (Cassandra burned everything she deemed too sensitive), and the next one dates from the following summer. But we do know that Tom’s family took stock of the situation and decided to put a stop to it. Tom was the oldest son of a large and by no means wealthy family. He was studying for the bar and still making his way in the world, and he could not afford to engage himself, or so it was thought, to a fortuneless young woman. As his cousins later said, their mother sent him off posthaste so “that no more mischief might be done.”
Would he have proposed, as Austen expected, had he not been interfered with? We cannot know. Did he return her love in equal measure? Of that we can be sure. Decades later, as an old man—he had married (an heiress) three years later, fathered nine children, and risen to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland—“he said in so many words,” according to a nephew, “that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love.” A boyish love it may have been, at least from the perspective of old age, but twenty-one years after their brief romance—the only time they ever met—he had traveled back to England (no small journey) to pay his respects after learning of her death. Still later he had bought, at an auction of the publisher’s papers, the rejection letter that Austen had received for the first version of
As for Austen’s, it is harder to say. His only other mention in her letters came almost three years after that fateful Christmas season. Anne Lefroy, his aunt, had just been visiting, and, Austen reported:
The tone is unmistakable: lingering resentment, continued curiosity, and yet, as well, a sense that she has gotten over it. Tom Lefroy had taught her what it meant to be in love, but Austen was no Anne Elliot, pining away for Wentworth. It was not disappointment that made her a spinster.
For one thing, there were other opportunities. Austen was, by all accounts, an attractive young woman: tall and slender, with bright hazel eyes; long, curly, light brown hair; a clear and glowing complexion; and a light, firm step that spoke of health and animation. Of her charms of conversation, her playfulness and wit, there can be, of course, no doubt. Tom Lefroy was hardly the only young man to be drawn to her. There was “Mr. Heartley & all his Estate,” and Charles Powlett, who wanted to kiss her, and who knows how many other “Admirers.” After Tom there was that friend of Anne Lefroy’s, the one that Austen mentioned in the letter three years later, a young clergyman who had expressed regard and interest. There was a young gentleman in a seaside place—the details are as hazy as the setting, for Cassandra divulged the episode only years after her sister’s death—“whose charm of person, mind, and manners,” according to a nephew, “was such that Cassandra thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love,” who took his leave “expressing his intention of soon seeing them again”—but who, a short time later, suddenly died. And then, of course, there was Harris Bigg-Wither.
Could Austen have grown to love her fianc?-for-a-night, as she later advised her niece to do with John Plumptre? Perhaps. She had known him since childhood, she loved his family, and although he was still somewhat shy and awkward, he had come back from Oxford a far more confident young man than he had once been. But love was no longer the only consideration. The young woman who had lost her chance with Tom Lefroy at the age of twenty had still been only a fledgling writer. The one who rejected her friends’ brother seven years later was now the author of three novels, even if none were published yet. She had come to a fork in the road. In one direction lay marriage, family, security, and perhaps love. In the other lay the adventure of art.
She could not have had both. To marry then, for a young woman, was to become a mother to the exclusion of all else—and at the cost, finally, far too often, of life. Austen’s brother Charles’s wife had four children in five years and died. Austen’s brother Frank’s wife had eleven children in sixteen years and died. Austen’s brother Edward’s wife had eleven children in fifteen years and died. Austen’s mother had had eight children. When Austen thought about the fact that her favorite niece would someday find a husband—this was several years after the John Plumptre episode—she feared for what it would mean. “Oh! what a loss it will be, when you are married,” she exclaimed, telling us everything we need to know about why she never got married herself: “I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.” Cassandra would later remember the letters her sister wrote, “triumphing over the married women of her acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom”—the freedom to write, the freedom to create, the freedom to ride her incomparable genius wherever it wanted to go.
That freedom would be tragically cut short. The worst irony of Austen’s death at the age of forty-one, young even for those days, was that she came from a remarkably long-lived family. Of her parents and seven siblings, eight lived past seventy. Cassandra lived to seventy-two. Their mother lived to eighty-seven. Their brother Frank, the sailor, lived to ninety-one, rising to the highest rank in the Royal Navy. The cause of Austen’s untimely demise will never be known. Scholars once suspected that the fatal illness was Addison’s disease, but a closer look at the evidence discredited the theory. Perhaps, if the cause was infection or some other circumstantial factor, a different life—a life lived in Ireland with Tom Lefroy, or on his estate with Harris Bigg-Wither—might well have been a longer one.
A longer one, but a different one. Austen never married, but she did have children, and many more than eight or eleven. Their names are Emma and Elizabeth and Catherine, Anne and Fanny and Elinor and Marianne. Their names are Henry and Edward and Wentworth and Willoughby, Mr. Collins and Miss Bates and Mr. Darcy. They were not long-lived, they are ageless. Had she married Tom or Harris, she might have been happy, she might have been rich, she might have been a mother, she might have even been long-lived herself. She might have been all of these things—but we would not have been who we are, and she would not have been Jane Austen.