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Take Your Heart Seriously: Lessons from Jane Austen

Written by Katherine Stohlman

March 31, 2021

When the Villains are Beautiful

​I’ve been a fangirl of Jane Austen’s from the time I was old enough to understand her books and the movies they’ve inspired. Like so many others, I appreciate how well they manage to be both romantic and believable, portraying love and human nature in all of it’s messy reality. Only one thing about her novels ever seemed off, a tad fanciful to me—how quickly a meet-cute leads to romance, leads to engagement and marriage. Oh, that’s just how it was back then, I told myself. 200 years ago it was more acceptable to be madly in love after a few weeks.

Meanwhile, I struggled through my own romantic disappointment with, I thought, level-headed indifference. I prided myself on my ability to get over a guy quickly, to not care that someone I had liked yesterday had disappeared today. If feelings persisted a little longer than I liked, I told myself to stop thinking about it; it’s not like I had been in love or anything. Plus, I could always distract myself with Pride and Prejudice, and laugh at how mopey Jane Bennet is after the guy she’s known for a month moves away.

However, as I grew, my thoughts began to change. I suffered a heartbreak so disappointing and so lingering that I couldn’t just shrug off how upset I was. Telling myself that “at least I hadn’t been in love” didn’t quite work this time. My hopes had been way up where this guy was concerned— not because we had dated for months and months and all was going smoothly, but because I felt such a genuine connection as we got to know each other that I couldn’t help but be swept away by it; as a result, I was forced to pay more attention than I ever had to a thwarted relationship. After I (slowly) worked through my feelings, my attitudes about Miss Austen’s portrayal of instant love began to change.

Is Jane Austen really out of touch for taking her heroines’ disappointed hopes so seriously? Or was my reaction more indicative of how little credit I wanted to give to my own heart?

We live in a society where getting engaged after anything less than a year or two of dating is viewed as risky, where many women would be quick to try to laugh off a failed relationship with a guy they were only with for a month, and where we fear that lingering heartbreak over a man we weren’t seriously involved with is a sign that we’re weak or dramatic. We tell ourselves that we couldn’t have actually been in love or cared that much—it’s not like we knew him that long.

Imagine a latter-day Marianne Dashwood: a 17-year-old who’s devastated that her boyfriend of a few months dumped her for another girl when she thought they’d be applying to the same colleges. We’d maybe tell her to get over herself; after all, she’s only a teenager. What did she expect from 10 weeks of high-school dating? Or a Jane Bennet, a more mature and put-together woman, ghosted by a man she was genuinely excited about. Pull yourself together, you’re old enough to know better. Or poor Anne Elliot, age 27, still in love with Frederick Wentworth, whom she hasn’t seen since she was 19. Really, girl? That was 8 years ago, move on!

​True, Austen lived in a radically different world. People didn’t “date” the way we do now. Part of the reason adies like Marianne Dashwood and Jane Bennet are so hurt by their love interests’ disappearing acts is because, according to the mores of the day, they had every right to hope for a marriage proposal from Willoughby and Bingley. But there’s still something so refreshing in the way these heroines are treated. Even if they hardly knew their love interests, even if they acted (in Marianne’s case) a tad immaturely, no one expects them to simply shake it off and get over it. Their feelings are taken seriously and they’re treated with compassion. They aren’t afraid that they’re crazy or hung-up or dramatic if they’re sad. Perhaps most strikingly, the people around them don’t think that these ladies are crazy either. As silly as most of Marianne Dashwood’s neighbors are, Austen portrays them at their kindest and best when they are taking pains to look after heartbroken Marianne. Likewise, the town defends Jane Bennet after Mr. Bingley’s departure. Instead of sneering at the ladies’ feelings, Austen’s characters acknowledge that the gentlemen who broke their hearts are more to blame for getting close to a woman and then leaving with no real explanation. There was a general understanding that a woman’s heart was to be respected, not played with or undermined.

I’m not saying that we should marry a man we’ve only known for a month, but neither does Jane Austen. By the time her heroes and heroines actually get hitched, most of them have known each other for nearly a year or more. She always finds a way to stretch their acquaintance to longer than a few weeks, even if they fell in love quickly. The couples who marry in haste, such as Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham, Fanny Dashwood and Robert Ferrars, or Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick, are not portrayed as couples we should emulate.

Nor does Jane Austen want us to wallow in our sorrow when our hearts are broken. When Marianne indulges in her grief over Mr. Willoughby past the point of reason (she literally nearly dies), she uses her recovery time to reflect on how she could have used a little more self-control. Jane Bennet is subtly commended for striving to “check the indulgence of those regrets [over Mr. Bingley], which must have been injurious to her own…tranquility.” Elinor Dashwood is more strongly commended for exerting to keep her sadness over Edward Ferrars from affecting her health or upsetting her family. Anne Elliot doesn’t judge Captain Benwick for being noticeably depressed over the death of his fiancee, but she does caution him against spending too much time reading moody poetry. Jane Austen does not encourage anyone to be undignified or self-indulgent in their heartbreak.

​She also clearly distinguishes between infatuation and genuine connection, such as Harriet Smith’s brief crushes on Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley, versus her lingering interest in Robert Martin, or Lizzy Bennet’s attraction to Mr. Wickham, versus her respect and eventual love for Mr. Darcy. Harriet is portrayed as ever-so-slightly silly and gullible for being so upset over these men, whereas Lizzy says she does “not mean to be unhappy about” Colonel Fitzwilliam or Mr. Wickham, and strong-minded Emma Woodhouse acknowledges her crush on Frank Churchill, while admitting to herself that she has no intentions of acting on it.

Clearly, we’re not encouraged to give into our sillier, more emotional, or self-indulgent impulses concerning romance. Austen’s leading ladies are nothing if not level-headed. But a lesson we can learn from her heroines, and the people around them, is that when it comes to genuine connection, budding love (not just infatuation or lust), we should take our feelings seriously, even if we haven’t been feeling them for very long. Whether that means acting accordingly when we feel seriously about a man, or refusing to write it off if our hearts have been broken, Austen shows us that how we treat our hearts matters. The reason her heroines don’t seem crazy or silly when they are upset over a guy they “barely knew” is because they don’t tell themselves that they are crazy or silly. They knew what they felt, and they know that their subsequent hurt and disappointment is real.

​Some of us, perhaps, have never struggled with allowing ourselves to miss a guy. Maybe others have a hard time keeping their emotions at a rational level and not losing themselves on waves of sadness. But I’d venture to say there are still many of us who struggle with the opposite: not considering our own genuine feelings as valid— telling ourselves, “well it’s not like I dated him that long,” or “it’s not like we were that serious,” or “it’s not as if we were in an actual relationship.”

Changing our mindsets might take time and patience, but it starts with simply letting ourselves feel honestly, reminding ourselves that even if sadness or heartbreak isn’t ideal, it is perfectly real and valid. Reminding ourselves that just because there will be other men and other, happier relationships, that does not take away the fact that we missed out on happiness with this particular man, and that it’s okay to be hurt by that. We cannot expect our friends or parents or most of all, the men we fall in love with, to treat our hearts with consideration and respect if we cannot do so ourselves.

Jane Austen’s novels are a gentle, yet powerful demonstration that your heart matters. All too often, they’re buried under disappointments, stress, the carelessness of others —a false idea that we need to be tough and invulnerable. That does not change the fact that our hearts (and mens’ hearts, for that matter) deserve to be honored, respected, and guided by gentleness. We cannot always expect the world to treat us that way, and certainly we’ll encounter plenty of people who do not care. All the same, we can start by honoring and respecting ourselves, and striving to extend this same compassion to those around us.

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