Want to live happily ever after, for real? Once Upon a Time goes practical in Elizabeth Kantor’s book The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, which seeks to recover common sense and dignity in the matters of love and marriage. Kantor talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what Jane might have to say about men, women, and 50 Shades of Grey today.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is the cultural obsession with Jane Austen already? Will you have a vampire version next?
Our perennial Jane Austen obsession was the thing that got me started writing The Jane Austen Guide. There are all these wonderful, mouth-watering things in her books that women today wish we could have — her heroines’ dignity and elegance, their savvy about men, the happily-ever-after endings — but we find it difficult to make them happen for us in the 21st century. I thought if I could distill Jane Austen’s wisdom on love into an advice book, she could actually help women today with their relationships.
LOPEZ : Do you have to like Jane Austen to like or even get the book?
KANTOR: No! Even if you’ve never read Jane Austen — or maybe you tried her and you didn’t “get” her — well, the book is meant to help you see the point. There are good reasons that Jane Austen is so popular 200 years after she wrote. She’s got insights into male and female psychology and relationship dynamics that you can still learn from, even if you don’t like reading novels. This is a very practical advice book for women; if you also enjoy all things Jane, that’s gravy.
LOPEZ: “The pursuit of rational and permanent happiness is what sets Jane Austen heroines apart.” From most of Western culture?
KANTOR: From even the other characters in Jane Austen’s books! Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot are on a pretty high plane. They certainly look elegant, dignified, and amazingly competent about their relationships compared with most of the women portrayed in popular culture today. They’re fictional characters, of course, but notice that Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion seemed realistic enough for popular fiction in the eighteen-teens, while Sex and the City and Hannah Horvath’s Girls seem realistic enough for popular fiction today.
LOPEZ: What exactly does rational and permanent happiness look like?
KANTOR: Like Elizabeth with Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. We see them deliriously in love, but their relationship isn’t just some crazy adventure that could easily end badly. They have excellent reasons for believing that they’re going to be happy with each other in the long run.
LOPEZ: What does “Don’t Try Love on the Installment Plan” mean?
KANTOR: There are actually two ways that women in Jane Austen’s books approach relationships.
There’s the Jane Austen–heroine way, where you follow the rules of courtship — not “The Rules” from that 1990s book about manipulating guys by playing hard to get, but reasonable standards for your choices about how to deal with men, grounded in some insights about human nature, male and female psychology, &c., that we’ve largely forgotten — and you end up with a Jane Austen heroine–quality happy ending. You don’t rush into intimacy with guys; instead, you keep enough distance to maintain your perspective while you’re evaluating a man’s character, and also while you’re discerning his intentions (a now sadly neglected task, but Jane Austen heroines know exactly how to manage it).