Elizabeth Kantor is the author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After , which will be published on April 2nd and is already shipping from Amazon. She is visiting here at My Jane Austen Book Club today to tell us about how Jane Austen creates her happy endings and how we can re-create them. Enjoy her guest post, leave your comment + your e-mail address to enter the giveaway contest to win the book. US readers only. The giveaway ends on April 6th when the name of the winner is announced. Good luck!
Endorphins Out of Ink and Paper: How Jane Austen Creates Her Happy Endings (and How We Can Re-Create Them)
Jane Austen is past mistress of the truly happy ending.
with Darcy, Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth--the last chapters of their stories
capture exactly what we all long for in love. But they're not just
mouth-watering happily-ever-after endings. What makes them even better is,
they're believable. My husband quotes the professor who taught him Pride and
Prejudice in college: It's one of the only happy endings in all of literature that
is really believable. You can actually imagine Elizabeth and Darcy as a happily
married couple. Elizabeth
So how does Jane Austen do it? What's her recipe for compounding endorphins out of ink and paper?
And--a question even more interesting to us 21st-century women--can the kind of happiness that Jane Austen figured out how to create on paper be re-created in real life? Can we follow her map to discover the wellsprings of happy love?
Now Jane Austen would not have been at all surprised to find her readers looking to and even imitating her characters in the hopes of finding their own happy endings. It's a major theme of her fiction--from the juvenilia and Northanger Abbey (where Catherine gets into all kinds of trouble expecting life to be like a Gothic novel) to her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon (where Sir Edward Denham is deliberately modeling himself on Lovelace in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa)--that readers do tend to want to get inside the fiction we love, and make our own lives like the lives of their favorite characters. So it's fair enough to ask how Jane Austen expected women who read Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion to act, if they wanted happy endings like Elizabeth's, and Anne's. About which, more below.
But getting back to the basic question about how Jane Austen pulls those happy endings off in the novels--look at the question first from a literary-critical point of view. Critics compare Jane Austen to Shakespeare, for many reasons. (For example, the infinite fecundity of her imagination. It's obvious that if she had lived another 40 years, she would never have run out of material--she would just have gone on inventing entirely new characters and situations. And wouldn't we be lucky! That's in contrast to a writer like Evelyn Waugh--whom I love, too, but he has his limitations--who complained that after 40 life simply wasn't making the clear impressions on him that he could turn into novels, and talked about first using up his remaining amount of life-experience in one more great work of fiction before going on to write an autobiograpy (details from my memory of a letter of his to Nancy Mitford, which I can't find at the moment, so pls. forgive the paraphrase & any inaccuracies!). Or F. Scott Fitzgerald--again, I'm a fan--who is supposed to have lifted material from Zelda's diary and resented her wanting to use her own experiences of their marriage in her own writing!) But especially because Jane Austen is the other great literary artist in English who writes generous Shakespearean comedy, with those delightful happy endings. The fascinating thing, from the literary-critical point of view, is that she worked her way up to that Shakespearean kind of comedy by an apprenticeship in the other kind--the very ungenerous Jonsonian (after Ben Jonson) comedy, where all the laughs are at the characters, not with them--where the comedy is about exposing the vices and folly of very limited characters, not delighting in the insights and virtues and possibilities opening out before fully rounded people.
All Jane Austen's juvenilia is like the old "comedy of humors"--it's full of ridiculous, truncated characters who twist themselves into absurd shapes in obedience to some single passion. My very favorite is Charlotte Luttrell in Lesley Castle, who is so obsessed with the details of housekeeping that she reacts like this when her sister's fiance has a fatal accident:
Dear Eloisa (said I) there's no occasion for your crying so much about a trifle (for I was willing to make light of it in order to comfort her). I bet you would not mind it--, You see it does not vex me in the least; though perhaps I may suffer most from it after all; for I shall not only be obliged to eat up all the Victuals I have dressed already, but must if Hervey should recover (which however is not very likely) dress as much for you again; or should he die (as I suppose he will) I shall still have to prepare a dinner for you whenever you marry someone else. . . . Thus I did all within my power to console her, but without any effect."
There are still characters almost as silly as that in Sense and Sensibility--Sir John Middleton, who's so dependent on the society of other people that he is relieved to know the Dashwoods will be coming to London to add two to its the population, and Charlotte Palmer, who is so good-humored that she's able to find amusement in even her husband's inattention. But in Jane Austen's novels, the absurd characters show up the delightful normality of the main characters. And the comedy isn't just about how the ridiculous characters get their come-uppance. The happy ending is about how the fully-fleshed-out characters find happiness.
They find their happiness right in the middle--precisely not at any crazy extreme. Their aspirations are as well-rounded and beautifully balanced as they are. Look at the way Captain Wentworth talks about Anne--she's "the loveliest medium." And look at how Elizabeth and Darcy find each other--they overcome their extreme and partial views and learn to see each other straight on, clear & true. Jane Austen's idea of happiness is a very 18th-century idea--it's all about balance, and seeing things as they really are. To Jane Austen (and to us, when we're immersed in her novels), the normal and the right and the true don't seem boring. They seem exciting, vibrant, a dynamic balance, successful and promising more for the future.
But does it translate to real life?
As a matter of fact, it's exactly the recipe for happiness that the wise have been recommending for about two and a half millennia--at least since Aristotle. The happy medium fails to attract us mostly because we're heirs to the Cult of Sensibility (as in Sense and Sensibility) and the Romantic Movement, which have very successfully sold the world on some odd propositions: only extreme and intense experiences are worth having . . . you liberate yourself and find authenticity by rebelling against convention, prudence, and common sense . . . happiness is boring. But if the prospect of happiness--what Elizabeth and Darcy find in Pride and Prejudice--doesn't bore you, then Jane Austen can be the guide to the kind of life you want.
Women today are settling for less than we want when it comes to men, relationships, sex, and marriage. But we don’t have to, argues Elizabeth Kantor. Jane Austen can show us how to find the love we really want.
In The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, Kantor reveals how the examples of Jane Austen heroines such as Elizabeth Bennett, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot can help us navigate the modern-day minefields of dating, love, relationships, and sex. By following in their footsteps—and steering clear of the sad endings suffered by characters such as Maria Bertram and Charlotte Lucas—modern women can discover the path to lifelong love and true happiness.
Charged with honesty and humor, Kantor's book includes testimonies from modern women, pop culture parallels, the author's personal experiences and, of course, a thorough examination of Austen's beloved novels.
Featuring characters and situations from all of Jane Austen’s books (including unfinished novels, and stories not published in her lifetime), The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After tackles the dating and relationship dilemmas that we face today, and equips modern women to approach our love lives with fresh insights distilled from the novels:
- Don’t be a tragic heroine
- Pursue Elizabeth Bennet’s “rational happiness” —learn what it is, and how you can find it
- Don’t let cynicism steal your happy ending
- Why it’s a mistake to look for your “soul mate”
- Jane Austen’s skeleton keys to a man’s potential
- How you should deal with men who are “afraid of commitment” (from Jane Austen’s eight
- Learn how to arrange your own marriage—by falling in love the Jane Austen way