The perils of a society without manners and etiquette.
Jane Austen is a British author who wrote novels that are filled with romance and comedy. Her novels often focus on the social interactions of the gentry, as well as the foibles of her characters. The novel “Pride and Prejudice” is one of her most popular works.
One Saturday during law school, I took a break from studying to watch some stupid television. I stumbled upon Hugh Laurie, of Dr. House fame, dressed in 19th-century English gentleman clothing while I was scrolling through the channels. I halted my channel surfing to find out what Hugh Laurie sounded like with his native British accent since I was a House fan.
Then I saw that I was watching Sense and Sensibility on the cable box’s information ticker on the screen.
Ugh. Jane Austen was a British author who lived in the 18th century That is not something I would like.
Jane Austen was connected with a group of girls I knew in high school who would watch the BBC’s 6-hour Pride and Prejudice miniseries at overnight parties in marathon sessions. And I’d never read the novels that these movies and TV series were based on, which looked to be foo-fooey woman fare.
No, I wasn’t going to see a film that seemed tailor-made for fans of the Baby-Sitters Club and rom-coms. My objective was to change the channel as soon as I heard Dr. House speaking in a British accent.
The final credits for Sense and Sensibility slid down the screen two hours later.
I had sat through the whole thing. I didn’t even get out of bed to use the restroom.
I remember thinking, “Man, that was really pretty damn good.” Not only did I watch the whole movie, but I also remember thinking, “Man, that was actually pretty damn good.”
My opposition to Austen was dissolved thanks to Dr. House, and I became truly interested in her works. So I downloaded the free edition of her collected works and began reading Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, which are undoubtedly her three finest works.
And I’ll be damned if I didn’t like every single one of them.
If you’re a male who has dismissed Jane Austen for the same reasons I did, I hope this piece will persuade you to at least try reading her classics. They aren’t only for the ladies. This is why:
Why Should Every Man Read Jane Austen?
Austen is more direct and funny than you may imagine.
Austen’s works are just pleasurable and engaging to read, with unexpectedly gripping storylines and excellent language. The fact that Austen possesses a razor-sharp wit may surprise many who identify her with the flowery attire and ostensibly staid manners of the Regency era. She often mocks the mentality and cultural mores of the period, presenting things in a lighthearted manner, and I found myself giggling out as I read her books.
But there are several more reasons to consider adding Austen to your own collection, apart from the very genuine pleasure that comes with reading her novels:
Austen Will Assist You in Developing Your Mental Model
I published an essay a few years ago on why guys should read more fiction, and one of the reasons I provided was that reading helps create our “theory of mind,” as cognitive scientists put it. Theory of mind is the ability to analyze other people’s mental states (thoughts, emotions, and beliefs) based on a variety of information and use that evaluation to anticipate and explain what they are thinking. In a professional environment, theory of mind helps us to plan and outsmart competitors (while avoiding being misled), as well as manage the unsaid nuances of personal relationships (“I believe she thinks I like her, but I don’t. “How can I make it simple for this girl to let me down?”).
When it comes to theory of mind, males have unfortunately received the short end of the evolutionary stick. Girls’ theory of mind develops more quickly than boys’, and women do better on theory of mind activities than males.
Fortunately, it’s a talent that can be honed, and one method to do so is to read fiction. According to studies, when we read fiction, the areas of our brain that control theory of mind light up and become quite active. Narratives need us to deduce characters’ hidden goals, deduce what their foes or loves may or may not be thinking (when the author doesn’t tell us clearly), and keep track of all of their social interactions.
Jane Austen’s books are like heavy-plated barbells when it comes to strengthening the muscle of our theory of mind. They’re all about relationships and what people have to say about them. Austen’s books are full with dozens of characters who are continually guessing at each other’s thoughts and intentions; each interacts with the others in intricate ways that affect practically everyone in the book’s connections.
For example, there are over 50 distinct characters in Pride and Prejudice, all of them are connected to one another in some manner. Keeping track of this network of connections and finding out what all those nuanced 19th-century British social gestures truly imply becomes a rigorous exercise in mental theory. As a result, whenever I complete a Jane Austen book, I feel a little more socially savvy.
Reading Austen may surely help you become a better strategist, leader, husband, parent, or lover.
Knowing Austen is an important part of being culturally literate.
As we’ve previously discussed on the site, there’s a Great Conversation going on in Western culture about the great questions in life that started in ancient Greece and continues now. This conversation has Jane Austen as one of the participants. Eminent literary critic Harold Bloom chose Austen as part of the “Western Canon – The Books and School of the Ages” when he was asked to choose the 26 authors who had had the greatest impact on defining Western civilization. Why? Irony, natural and realistic conversation, and inner-dialogue were all used by her to help change the trajectory of literature. Her writings are cited in several works of psychology, sociology, and philosophy, and she touched on important concepts like love, virtue, and self-knowledge. For example, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre places Austen’s writings alongside those of Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle as examples of three diverse theories of virtue in his book After Virtue.
Austen is often mentioned in the media, in anything from serious news items to pop culture. Not only have her books been adapted directly into several films and television series, but their storylines have also been loosely interwoven into countless films and television shows. Clueless, for example, was a contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
If you want to be a better participant in the Great Conversation, understand pop culture allusions that might otherwise pass you by, and be more culturally aware in general, you need to brush up on your Austen.
Austen’s Novels Important Life Lessons to Teach
There are certainly innumerable life lessons to be learned from Jane Austen’s books, but here are two major ones that I believe are equally relevant to men and women.
Love with both your heart and mind. Austen’s works are sometimes grouped in with passionate and escapist romance writing, but when I studied her work, I learned that she takes a very level-headed, eyes-wide-open approach to love. A successful existence, according to Austen, necessitates loving with both your heart and your brain.
She typically portrays the dissatisfaction that occurs when people marry for reasons other than pure romantic love or cold, planned convenience.
Take, for example, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which tackles the pain that might result from a love based exclusively on emotions. Marianne Dashwood is the epitome of passionate love. She explains why she could never marry someone as boring as Edward Ferrars in one scene:
“All that vitality, all that fire, which at once declare virtue and intellect, he wants in his eyes.” Aside from that, mom, I’m afraid he has no actual taste. Music does not appear to appeal to him, and although he admires Elinor’s paintings, it is not the adoration of someone who recognizes their value. Despite his constant attention to her as she sketches, it’s clear that he has no idea what’s going on. He admires her as a lover, not a collector. Those traits must be combined in order to please me. I couldn’t be happy with a guy whose tastes didn’t match mine in every way. He must share all of my emotions; the same literature and music must enchant us both. Oh, mom, Edward’s style in reading to us last night was so spiritless and tame! My heart ached for my sister the most. Nonetheless, she endured it with such calm that she didn’t appear to notice. I had a hard time keeping my seat. Hearing those lovely sentences, which have nearly drove me insane on many occasions, delivered with such impenetrable composure, such awful indifference.”
Marianne believes that love necessitates having everything in common with your partner. But observe how she concentrates on things that are a little more superficial: books, music, and art. She’s looking for a soulmate, but she’s not interested in scrutinizing the suitor’s soul. It doesn’t even occur to her to consider whether or not her sweetheart is noble and good.
Marianne finds her perfect mate in the dashing, gentleman sportsman Mr. Willoughby by coincidence. He swoops Marianne off her feet both physically and symbolically the instant they meet, debonairly scooping her up and carrying her home after she slips down a hill in the rain. She is subsequently ecstatic to realize that Willoughby shares her likes in music, reading, and art. He seems to meet all of her love fantasies and desires.
Willoughby, on the other hand, turns out to be an opportunistic rogue who dupes Marianne for months before abandoning her. Marianne, ever the hopeless romantic, is crushed and on the verge of passing away from sadness.
Elinor, Marianne’s sister, on the other hand, is considerably more level-headed and mature when it comes to love. Yes, she wants a spouse she loves being around, with whom she has interests and is physically attracted. However, she considers a suitor’s character to be his most significant quality. Was he a truly decent person who could motivate her to improve herself?
Tastes vary and beauty fades with age, but a person’s character and temperament tend to remain constant. Will you still want to be married to your partner thirty years from now if she has wrinkles and liver spots and no longer appreciates the same literature as you?
Mr. Bennet, the father of the book’s primary heroine — his daughter Elizabeth — provides wisdom about balancing love with your heart and brain in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet is dissatisfied with his marriage and often scoffs at his “silly wife.” Austen describes the source of Bennet’s dissatisfaction:
“Captivated by youth and beauty, and the appearance of good humour that youth and beauty typically offer, [Bennet] had married a lady whose poor comprehension and illiberal mentality had put a stop to any true attachment for her very early in their marriage.”
In other words, instead of using his intellect to consider issues like character and temperament, Mr. Bennet allowed his impulses completely determine his choice of marriage, marrying his wife exclusively on the basis of her appearance and seeming charm. His lust for the future Mrs. Bennet blinded him to the reality that she was a vacuous, petty social climber.
The patriarch of the Bennet dynasty does not want his beloved daughter Elizabeth to make the same mistake he did as a young man. When he learns that she intends to marry Mr. Darcy, whose character Elizabeth and her family misunderstood at first, he begs his daughter to consider her motives:
“‘To be sure, he is wealthy, and you may have finer clothing and vehicles than Jane. Will they, however, make you happy?’
‘Have you any other objections beyond your confidence in my apathy,’ Elizabeth said.
‘None at all,’ says the narrator. We all know he’s a haughty, obnoxious character, but that wouldn’t matter if you loved him.’
‘I do, I do like him,’ she said, her eyes welling up with tears, ‘I adore him.’ He isn’t conceited in the least. He is quite pleasant to be around. If you have no idea who he is, then please don’t offend me by speaking of him in such words.’
‘I have given him my approval, Lizzy,’ her father added. He is the kind of guy to whom I would never dare to say no to whatever he has condescended to ask. If you’re dead set on possessing him, I’ll hand it up to you immediately. However, I would encourage you to reconsider. Lizzy, I’m familiar with your demeanor. I know you couldn’t be happy or respectable unless you held your spouse in high regard and looked up to him as a leader. In an unequal marriage, your vibrant abilities would put you in the most risk. You’d be hard pressed to avoid disgrace and sorrow. ‘My kid, spare me the agony of watching you unable to appreciate your life mate.’
Mr. Bennet wants to make sure his daughter loves with her heart as well as her brain, so she doesn’t make the same mistake he made. He wants her to marry someone she loves and admires.
Similar instances may be found throughout Austen’s works. While her works feature female protagonists, the lesson is also relevant to males. According to several studies, males, especially those in their mid-twenties, fall more quickly into head-over-heels love than women.
As a result, individuals may become oblivious to the many warning lights that their significant other is raising. These guys don’t understand they’re in a dead-end and perhaps poisonous relationship until the passion-induced love blindness wears off.
So, gentlemen, learn from Miss Austen. Love fervently, but with both your heart and your head.
Know oneself and pursue personal development honestly. Austen’s heroines all suffer through peripeteia at some point in their lives. Elizabeth Bennet finds in Pride and Prejudice that she was just as proud and prejudiced as Mr. Darcy. In Emma, Emma realizes that interfering in other people’s love relationships has only resulted in heartbreak. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne understands that her emotions blinded her to Mr. Willoughby’s genuine nature.
As a result, it seems that one of the most essential lessons Austen is attempting to teach her readers is to take seriously the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi’s admonition: “Know oneself!” Have a good sense of self-awareness. Get out of your brain and attempt to view yourself through the eyes of others (theory of mind!) so you may get a more realistic picture of who you are, what motivates your acts, and the repercussions of those actions.
Don’t stop there, however. You must be humble enough to admit that you may not be as good or noble as you believe, and then take steps to better yourself. In Jane Austen’s universe, wallowing in self-pity over your present misery is not permitted. Yes, you should feel regret and even guilt for your mistakes, but you should also utilize those sentiments to drive your quest for self-improvement.
Nonfiction biographies by authors like Edmund Morris and Stephen E. Ambrose, as well as virulent fiction like Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, have a place in a man’s collection. There should also be room for some Jane Austen. If you chose to read Sense and Sensibility, I swear your testicles will not return to your body. It will, in fact, make you a more well-rounded individual.
I’m going to urge both my daughter and son to read Austen’s books when they’re old enough, since they can improve your theory of mind, help you engage in the Great Conversation, and teach you vital life lessons. They’d be better off learning about relationships from an 18th-century spinster (Austen never married) than from current TV and movies through osmosis.
If there’s one book I suggest beginning with, it’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s the one I had the most fun with. Be warned: Austen’s books are massive, so set aside some time to read them. (They’re all available on Amazon for free or a few dollars at most.) Project Gutenberg also has them available for free.)
If reading Austen’s books doesn’t appeal to you, try viewing a film version of one of her works. Sense and Sensibility, a 1995 film starring Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, and Alan Rickman, features an all-star ensemble and, as I said at the outset, is pretty terrific. Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and released in 1996, is also said to be terrific, but I haven’t watched it. And Pride and Prejudice was adapted into a mini-series in 1995 (apparently the mid-90s were Jane Austen’s contemporary heyday! ), starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and is excellent, according to those high school ladies. Hey, it turns out they were right after all.
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