This month, one of my children will enter high school and the other will enter middle school. Who can prepare them for this vast wasteland? Only Jane Austen.
Although Jane only published six novels during her brief 41 years of life, she nailed human nature like no one but the Bard. My kids live in a complicated world that is fraught with social peril. They need Jane’s take on situations that never change. Such as …
When you want to let a guy know you like him. When you are interested in someone, how much should you let on? “Pride and Prejudice” presents extremes that should be avoided. Jane Bennett shows far too little of her feelings for Mr. Bingley, and her sister Lydia shows far too much of her feelings for any man in a uniform. Then there’s Elizabeth, who doesn’t know what she feels from one minute (and one man) to the next.
When you want to know if you’re in love. Love doesn’t always feel the way we think it will. Jane shows that the fellow we fall head over heels for is probably a heel because he puts on a good front. Your true love may be proud (Mr. Darcy), or maudlin (Mr. Benwick) or too familiar to arouse interest (Mr. Knightley). A good man doesn’t always say the right thing or do the right thing. That may make him perfect.
When people judge you by money. All Jane’s books address money. We still judge people based on where they live, what car they drive and the labels on their clothes. In “Mansfield Park,” Fanny Price is so poor that her parents send her away to live with her rich aunt and uncle (presumably in a better school district). Catherine Morland in “Northanger Abbey” is shunned after her true net worth is revealed. And the debacles in “Sense and Sensibility” are motivated by women in need of husbands with cash.
When gossip rears its ugly head. Has slander disappeared? Are rumors passé? Jane knows what makes the world go ‘round, and she uses it for plot twists straight out of the middle school girls’ bathroom. “Emma” is full of gossip, much of it started by the main character of the same name. What’s a girl to do, especially when it’s all so juicy? Never speculate, never repeat speculation, and never, never play matchmaker.
When a girl has girl problems. Girls find it hard to evaluate friendships, especially in these days, when everyone is a BFF. Isabella Thorpe in “Northanger Abbey” and Mary Crawford in “Mansfield Park” use a female friend in an attempt to snare a man. Even worse are girls who are downright mean. There are few scenes more heart-wrenching than when Emma humiliates Miss Bates in front of everyone at a picnic, and Miss Bates just takes it. Imagine that scene from “Emma” in the stands of a high school football game, and it’s completely contemporary.
When you or someone you know is with a bad dude. Jane’s books are full of scoundrels and women who love them. Check out Marianne and Mr. Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility,” Isabella and Captain Tilney in “Northanger Abbey,” Lydia and Mr. Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice” and Mrs. Rushworth and Mr. Crawford in “Mansfield Park.” Note to girls everywhere: if he seems too good to be true, he probably is.
When a girl thinks no one will ever love her. Will Mr. Right ever come? Jane asks if the fault lies with the girl sitting home alone on Friday night. Anne in “Persuasion” could have married, but she rejects the hand of a perfectly decent guy because her best friend tells her to. Charlotte Lucas in “Pride and Prejudice,” desperate to avoid becoming an old maid, accepts the first proposal she receives and almost ruins a friendship. Then there is Emma, star of her own story, who thinks her wealth immunizes her from love, yet ultimately falls for her closest male friend, the only person who tells her the truth.
When families just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s the mother (“Pride and Prejudice”). Sometimes it’s the father (“Persuasion”). Sometimes both parents are pathetic (“Mansfield Park”). Others are wonderful, especially Mr. Bennett, my favorite of all Jane’s characters. He maintains a sense of humor as he puts up with the most frivolous wife of all time and five nutty daughters. No wonder he treasures time alone in his library.
What would Jane do if she were advising my kids in 2010? She would tell them the world is full of danger, and not all danger involves actual mayhem. Sometimes it lurks in a sore throat (“Emma”). Or in poetry (“Persuasion”). Or even in taking books too seriously (“Northanger Abbey”).
Even Jane’s books. But they sure are fun!