Jane Austen’s guide to a successful marriage

Don’t confuse Austen’s books for romance novels — instead they provide a kind of instruction manual on finding the right mate and developing a lasting relationship.

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Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (1995) with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle

My mother, Oprah Winfrey, cuckoo-bird Iyanla Vanzant — these are the people and TV shows I turn to in times of relationship distress. In weak moments, I’ve even turned to my dog for advice and taken some comfort in his solemn attention. But maybe I’ve been looking for love-help in all the wrong places. Maybe the answers are sitting in my bookshelf, specifically buried in my copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What does the author of Pride and Prejudice know about marriage and commitment, you might ask? Other than how to make sure her good-gal protagonists wind up with a ring on their finger and the keys to Pemberley in their pockets? Jane Austen knows all of the necessary ingredients for making a marriage last beyond the honeymoon phase, or so says writer Karen Swallow Prior in an essay for The Atlantic.

Don’t confuse Austen’s books for romance novels, argues Swallow Prior because that’s not their reason for being. Instead Austen’s novels provide a kind of instruction manual on finding the appropriate mate and they continually dramatize the qualities and characteristics that constitute a sound union. For Swallow Prior, the novel Pride and Prejudice offers nine lessons that apply to a good marriage.

No.1 on the list is mutual respect. Austen reveals this necessity through a negative example, says Swallow Prior. In the book Lizzy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett don’t seem to like each other very much and as a result their marriage looks more like an endurance challenge than an enduring connection.

Other lessons include “first impressions can be misleading” and “you really do marry a family, not just a person”.

Lesson nine — “a good marriage challenges both partners to grow” — should resonate with anyone that is currently giving their partner the silent treatment for a perceived slight (no kiss goodbye!) or domestic sin (no compliment on the meal… again).

No one — not even Austen — ever said personal development was easy or a smooth transition. But it is  necessary. As someone that ought to embrace the challenge of personal development more often, I’m inclined to add a word to the lesson and say “a good marriage challenges both partners to grow up”.

That must be why it’s so hard.