Sometimes I imagine that it’s a beautiful sunny but chilly English morning. The countryside is lusciously green and its expanse covers the horizon. The aroma of a wood fire burning through the soot-dusted chimney of nearby neighbors, coupled with the scent of last night’s rain and the morning dew, fills the air in an attractive swell that entices the senses. There is a piano in the background, the music drifts through the breeze and settles around white wicker furniture ornamented with fluffy floral cushions. In the center is a small table with vintage mismatched china, the brims of the tea cups are billowing with white clouds of steam. The roses are in bloom in the quaint garden and circle the furniture, with a sort of warm embrace that makes one feel right at home. Cuddled up in a soft plush blanket I sit across from my dear friend Jane, pulling my legs underneath me and reaching perhaps for a buttery cookie from upon the china and placing in on my saucer as I bring it and the warm cup into my lap. “What a lovely morning,” I remark, pressing the glass to my lips and feeling the hot liquid spill into my mouth and run down my throat. I meet Jane’s big brown eyes and she smiles with ease. “Indeed,” she says, sipping from her own tea and twirling the tassels on the end of her blanket with her thin pale fingers. “It’s my favorite kind of morning; full of sun shine and good company.” We’re not in hurry to make conversation. Some of the best conversations are had silently between friends. But after several minutes, or perhaps several hours for all I knew (there’s no clock in sight, as it should be), she shifts in her seat, sliding a piece of brown hair behind her ear and murmurs “So, tell me, how’s life?” in a way that only trusted confidants do. And there it begins. We talk for hours about life, about love and friendships and novels and perhaps some grievances. And as we delve perhaps into some gossip, our voices lower as if conspiring to perform some sort of mischief, and I see a wicked smile play about her lips and dance in her eyes. And at that moment, I know she completely understands me, whole-heartedly.
That’s my wonderland. Every so often I drop down the rabbit hole into a place entirely fabricated within the walls of my mind, where I have morning tea with Jane Austen in the English countryside. I know that must sound crazy. But I’m entirely certain that Jane Austen and I would be best friends, you know, if we were alive during the same time. I’m a self-proclaimed Janeite! She’s incredibly smart and witty and completely ahead of her time. She’s one of the greatest novelists of all time (notice that I didn’t use the word “female”, because I think she beats out a lot of men too!) Her six novels are classics and held in the highest regard from literary scholars. Millions of people have bought, read, and obsessed over her books for nearly 200 years! Her characters are some of the most well known characters in all of literature (hello Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett!). Not to mention the countless movie adaptations, which seem to be re-surface every generation (BBC’s are the best, obviously.), and quasi-adaptations (1995’s cult classic “Clueless” is based off of Austen’s Emma and “Bridget Jones’ Diary” is a modern Pride & Prejudice!).
People make the mistake of thinking that because these novels were published in the early 1800’s (and for many American’s because it is in “old English”) that it is outdated and irrelevant. But I assure you, Jane Austen is as relevant now as she was then. And she always will be. She taught us how to live, how to love and how to conquer the world as a strong, independent woman. To prove this to you, I’m giving you Lesson’s I Learned from Jane Austen.
Lesson #1: First Impressions aren’t always accurate.
Once titled “First Impressions”, Pride & Prejudice was Austen’s pride and joy, and is one of the most beloved novels of all time. Simply, it’s a story about a young girl named Elizabeth who meets a new-to-town Mr. Darcy whose shyness and awkward nature is misunderstood as arrogance and vanity. Of course the fact that he is extremely wealthy doesn’t help matters either. The two main characters meet at a ball, and due to very poor first impressions of each other, both decide that they couldn’t possibly like the other. Ever. Elizabeth’s pride at overhearing Darcy refusing to dance with her and Darcy’s prejudice in regards to her “social situation” (her class, family, etc) are the very first impressions they get of one another, but they are enough to drive a wedge firmly in place between them. This is of course followed by more pride and more prejudice, on both their behalf’s, but eventually, once they’ve found out the truth and have actually taken time to understand each other, they realize that their first impressions were very, very wrong. This universal truth is something that we’ve all experienced with either a romantic interest or a potential friend. We have all either judged someone too quickly or have been judged too quickly, and it’s a good lesson to learn! I made a great friend in college who at first I absolutely despised because I made some quick judgments about her character, and when I really got to know her and understand where she was coming from, I loved her to death!
Lesson #2: We shouldn’t let other people’s opinions of who we love deter us from being with them.
Sure, some opinions do matter, if our loved ones believe the person we are with is dangerous to us, we should no doubt listen to them before shrugging it off. However, there are sometimes a lot of opinions about “He/she isn’t good enough for you” or “What’s their job? Oh, that’s not enough to support you!” or whatever it may be. Far too often we let what other people think influence us into believing it too. Austen believed in following your own mind and your own heart. In her novel published in 1811 titled Persuasion, she explores this very concept in a relationship between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. Although the novel starts when *ahem* Captain Wentworth returns from the Navy handsomely rich and handsomely handsome, having made a name for himself (and quite a fortune! He was Austen’s most wealthy leading man!) and reemerges into society where he runs into Anne Elliot, his former fiance, who called off the weeding because her friend persuaded her that he was beneath her (based on class, this is rather true. Wentworth was a self-made man and did not come from money or title). As Anne never married or fell in love with anyone else and Wentworth in search for love, the two struggle with their feelings for each other and overcoming their past. Wentworth continually remarks throughout the novel that strength of character is what he admires most about a women; someone who is not persuaded here or there, but knows her own heart and own mind and follows it. It’s important that we make our own choices; if we are happy, that’s what matters most, not the opinion of our parents or friends.
Lesson #3: Reading is cool people!
In Northanger Abbey, Austen’s satire novel published in 1811, Henry Tilney states that “the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Now, I’m not going to say that people who don’t enjoy reading are stupid, but it’s a reflection of Tilney’s character. He is the type of man that wants a woman to be smart and appreciates their intellect. And he loves books. What more do you need?
Lesson #4: Aging makes a woman more beautiful.
In Persuasion, Austen states that “it sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before”. I don’t think she just means that some women are more beautiful as they get older but that growing up, knowing who you are and gaining confidence and self respect make a woman more beautiful. It’s that process of “aging” that is so looked down upon in our world, where women spends hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in anti-wrinkle cream (or botox and face lifts), that actually makes a woman who she is, and it makes her more beautiful. We fear getting older; birthdays are often mourned instead of celebrated, and we start having “mid-life crises” at 25 years old. But the truth is, it’s okay that we’re not where we thought we’d be, whether we’re 25, 40, or 60 years old, it doesn’t matter. Life isn’t a checklist that we just cross off things after we get them. As cliché as it is, life is a journey. The actual act of driving isn’t the fun part, it’s what’s out your windows that makes it enjoyable. And sure, the point is to eventually get to a specific destination, but would we enjoy it as much once we got there if we completely hated the scenery or never even looked to see what was there? Those years make us who we are. And more often than not, the person we become is a much better person than who we used to be.
Lesson #5: Perfect is boring.
"Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked." That is one of my favorite Jane Austen quotes. I just absolutely adore it! Her books are never perfect stories and her characters are never perfect, in fact, some of them have HUGE flaws! (I'm looking at you Emma!) But maybe that's the point. Anne (Persuasion) waited 10 years for Wentworth to come back and for her to get her happy ending. 10 years! Emma is a horrible character- selfish, self centered, and juvenile. In fact, Jane said that she wrote a character (Emma) that only she could love. And does anyone like Fanny? I mean, honestly. The point is, life isn't perfect. It will not always go according to plan and people make mistakes. But the the beauty is in the flaws. Imperfections are interesting and relatable. And would we really love these novels and characters if we couldn't relate to them?
Lesson #6: Don't meddle in other people's love lives.
Emma is a horrible character. I don't mean to say that she is horribly written because NONE OF AUSTEN'S CHARACTERS ARE HORRIBLY WRITTEN (I just want to get that straight first!) but she is a horrible person. At the end of the day, she means well, but she should really learn to butt out of peoples' lives! Harriet could've been saved the heartache if she would've supported her friend's feelings instead of insisting she look for someone better, because you know, a farmer isn't good enough. Emma makes snap judgements based off of his social class and decides that he isn't worthy of her friend, and puts forth all of her effort into breaking them up. (Which, let's be honest, doesn't take long. Harriet is a push over.) The thing I learned most from Emma was to do everything the opposite that she does. I never found it fair that Mr. Knightly is a wonderful man/character and ends up with Emma. Poor Knightly. Especially the Johnny Lee Miller Knightly.
Lesson 7: True love is always found/realized when dancing.
I don't even need to explain this. Just watch the clips below.
Elizabeth & Mr. Darcy:
Emma & Mr. Knightly: