The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After (review)

May 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm (books, jane austen) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


Review copies of books often yield atrocious reads — no wonder “reviews” need to be sought out…. So when I was offered a copy of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, by Elizabeth Kantor (Regnery Publishing) I was skeptical, … and reluctant. Ultimately, I said “what the hell” and gave my mailing address.

Marketing links The Jane Austen Guide to the self-help genre; one dust jacket review even terms it an “advice book”. This is definitely a misnomer for this erudite and thought-provoking treatise on Austen’s novels and the exploration of relationships within those novels. Kantor has given readers a detailed and well-argued dissection of relationships, and the comparison with today’s marriage and dating market not only serves to point up what might be missing in our current hustle-bustle living arrangements, but also to give point of reference to readers who may have little background knowledge of the early-nineteenth-century English gentry Austen writes about. Certainly, buy this book if you wish to change your current dating pattern. Better yet, buy this book and pull out your Austen novels; explore the novels with Kantor, and if you happen to live a bit more happily ever after, count that as a bonus.

Indifferent to The Jane Austen Guide’s effect as self-help advice, why recommend this volume take up precious space on your bookshelf beside your collection of Austen novels? From the introduction onwards, Kantor’s sly humor is evident, whether she’s discussing Bridget Jones’s Diary or her own relationship disasters. The quality of the writing and the discourse make this a delightful read.

“[Jane Austen’s] ideals are all about rational balance, not about running screaming from one extreme only to fall off the edge on the other side. If you’ve escaped from a fire, it’s still not a great idea  to jump off a bridge and drown yourself.”

Beneath this effervescent surface, which does keep pages turning, are nuggets that will have Janeites reaching to take the novels off the shelf (as opposed to turning on the DVD). All the characters are there: from level-headed Lizzy Bennet, to boy-crazy Lydia; from Maria Bertram who “sells herself for ‘an escape from Mansfield’ and a ‘house in town’” to Charlotte Lucas, who wants to be assured of “three square meals a day” and discussions of why proud Darcy makes a better mate than the jocular, popular Wickham. No matter which novel, which couple, is your favorite, you will find a whole variety of characters given center-stage. Even the Juvenilia come under consideration, whenever a story involves love, happiness, and marriage. Love and Freindship’s heroine Laura “is proud of herself for allowing her life to be governed by intense emotions at the expense of common sense and even common decency. She falls in love in the approved Romantic manner, at first sight: ‘No sooner did I first behold him, then I felt that on him the happiness or Misery of my future Life may depend.’” Instantly, a precursor to Austen’s better-known Marianne Dashwood is established, and this makes for more correlations between Marianne and today’s reader – much as there would have been correlations felt by Austen’s original audience for Sense and Sensibility.

Male characters come under Kantor’s scrutiny as well. For instance, she nails down Wentworth’s character with this short portrait: Wentworth “was honor-bound to wait and see if his attentions to Louisa Musgrove had made Louisa expect to marry him. It was ‘dreadful,’  Wentworth tells Anne, ‘to be waiting so long in inaction.’ He never stops to think that he’s complaining about six weeks of terrible suspense to a woman who waited for him for seven years.” The crux behind Edmund Bertram’s stars dropping from his eyes is given as briefly and succinctly: “Mary’s reaction to this adulterous affair {Maria Rushworth running off with Mr. Crawford} finally opens Edmund’s eyes. He can hardly believe that the woman he wanted to marry thinks that Maria’s only real mistake in her affair with Henry was … getting caught.” Nowadays, that is the typical reaction; the ramifications of how this affair would have affected an entire family, like the disappearance of Lydia Bennet with Wickham, sometimes needs to be reasserted for less tutored readers. Kantor accomplishes that tutoring with ease, especially when she can equate past behavior with today’s behavior. For instance, in Mary Crawford’s handling of Edmund Bertram in a most “calculating way–as if the dating game were some kind of competition in looks, money, and status.” To Kantor much of Austen’s character-actions have “a very familiar flavor.”

Families, living arrangements, even “elbow room” then and now, help readers to see historically and rationally Austen’s milieu and how our own compares. “[C]olleges building new dorms with only ‘singles’ to accommodate freshman classes full of kids who’ve never shared a room in their lives; cell phones so ubiquitous that it’s becoming awkward even to ask a stranger the time”. Such comments cull current information for points of study that will make readers think about life today, i.e., what we might be missing as our lives continue to become more insular — as well as more insulated by parents and society. Food for thought, on many levels.

“[L]iving in the eighteen-teens, you pretty much had to learn to live with other people in a way that twenty-first-century people can mostly avoid. …. To hear music, you had to actually collect live musicians in one place. Games were with fellow guests around a card table, not at your solitary screen. And getting to a ball often meant having to be grateful to more well-to-do neighbors for a place in their carriage.”

In the end, Kantor recognizes, “It does make it dangerously easy for us to fall out of the habit of getting along with other people at close quarters. … And yet, ironically, we also find independence so compelling that we avoid putting ourselves in situations where we’re likely to form those kind of {i.e., close} friendships.”

Kantor’s delivery will delight younger-adult readers, and her lines of thought should provoke Austen scholars to think outside the box. Run to your nearest bookstore and buy your own copy of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After.

four filled-to-the-brim inkwells.

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2 Comments

  1. wildnightin said,

    I’d never have thought to pick up a book like this if I hadn’t have seen such a positive review in my ‘reader’. (It’s a terrible generalisation, but I tend to find books with titles like that a little cliché). So thank you!

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Dear “Wild” — The JA Guide is certainly aimed at a female audience, and there are bits some readers will skip over, but I found many valid points about the characters and situations in the novels. So much dreck out there, especially in books aiming to cash in on Austenmania. I felt I took something away from this book, and would go back to it again for reference; wasn’t reading it, though, for its “advice.”

      k

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