After my article about Jane Austen was published on Elite Daily (you can read that here), I was contacted by Melville House and the author Sinead Murphy, who recently released her new book The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love. I asked Sinead a few questions about her novel, Jane, and her thoughts on today’s modern dating scene.
The idea for a modern dating guide for young women is a popular one, but I love the unique perspective you use by including some of Jane Austen’s insights. How did you come up with the idea? Were you worried it wouldn’t resonate with modern readers?
Sitting by the fireside on a cold and windy Christmas evening, with my husband and extended family all around, we were, as is our wont, speculating on the romantic lives of some of the people we knew, when I burst out with ‘You know, I really think women would do a lot better in relationships if they had read and internalized Jane Austen’s novels when they were young.’ At which my husband turned to me and said, ‘You should write a guide to relationships, with all of Jane Austen’s advice in it!’ It seemed to me a great idea, and within a few minutes I had sketched out a list of dos and don’ts that might be included. Was I worried it wouldn’t resonate? Not a whit! In fact, it was because I knew that a lot of these dos and don’ts would be unfamiliar, perhaps even objectionable, that I felt the absolute necessity of writing the book…As far as I can tell, a lot of guides to romance are full of the most regressive advice, reinforcing that awful but most familiar of ideas, i.e. that women are inferior to men. I hope The Jane Austen Rules is read and appreciated by many many modern readers – but my aim was always to write a book that was needed, not necessarily a book that was wanted!
You frequently mention “the Guide,” which I assumed was a generalization of modern dating books that are out there. (Kind of like Fordyce’s Sermons were THE sermons in Jane’s day.) What do you think Jane would have to say about our dating “rules” today (or lack thereof)?
The book I mention is The Rules, which has been a real blockbuster of a dating guide in recent times, but, as you suggest, it also stands in for dating guides generally, which, although they may offer superficially different advice, do, in the main, position women in a very vulnerable and secondary position in relation to men. It’s as if they believe that, if a woman wants love then she’d better be prepared to pay for it…with her own dignity and right to equality! What would Jane have thought of all this? If there’s one thing Jane Austen’s heroines are not, it is ashamed of wanting to find love, or cowed down with a sense that wanting to find love means they have to renege upon their right to be taken seriously as fully-realised adults. The whole idea would have been bewildering to Jane Austen, I believe, who came from a society in which the object of meeting and marrying a romantic partner was regarded with the serious respect that it deserves.
You mention a few times that being too independent as a woman can be a bad thing for women looking for love. How much is this a personal view, or do you think that is what Jane is really trying to impart to women by using examples like Jane Fairfax as characters?
Every view expressed in The Jane Austen Rules is my view. And this is no exception. It strikes me, today, that women are caught between being too little independent of mind and too much independent of means. When I came to live in Britain, I was truly shocked by how mild most women are in mixed company, how little they say, how much they leave the responsibility for conversation to men. This is the twenty-first century! But, from my experience, women are less than ever expected to have ideas and be able to express them, to have thoughts and be willing to air them! And in the meantime, there have never been so many women in the workplace as there are today – which is supposed to be a real coup for women’s ‘independence’. But this seems utterly wrong-headed to me. Not only is it the case that there have never been so many underpaid and under-employing jobs as there are today (which makes the numbers of women in the workplace something to be bemoaned, not to be celebrated), it is also the case that women continue for the most part to desire and be responsible for home and care, which means that many women are these days bowed down under the weight of their workload. The word ‘independence’ is a slippery one, and it behoves us to look carefully at the conditions it is used to mask. This is a complex issue, and no mistake, but we would do well, I think, to look again at the denigration of women’s roles in life that is implied by the constant pressure on women to enter paid employment and ‘have it all.’
Tell me more about what you do as a professor of philosophy. How do you think that might have shaped your writing and the way you approached Austen’s work?
I have a job as a philosophy lecturer in Newcastle University, which I do part-time and which I enjoy very little! Universities these days are entirely corporate institutions, and students have been recast as consumers of education – so the whole landscape militates against the transmission of ideas. I am much more of the Socratic school of philosophy – philosophy in the marketplace, among the people and with reference to the important things in life. This is why, for me, The Jane Austen Rules is the most philosophical book I’ve written, although it is the least academic. Once you’re trained in philosophy, it’s relatively easy to bandy about philosophical ideas within the safety of the academic setting – it’s like a parlour game that you can get rather good at after a while. What’s not easy is to take those ideas out into the world, to articulate them in a manner that is engaging, to make them work! I found the writing of The Jane Austen Rules a real challenge, but it will, I hope, be the first of many efforts on my part to do philosophy and not simply to play around with it.
Austen’s heroines are full-developed characters, and each of them has a different way of viewing their own society and the marriage game. How would you characterize our hook-up culture today? Do you think any quality relationships can develop from the “games” we have created for ourselves?
I am firmly convinced that we must play ‘games’ in the lead up to romantic relationships, and, indeed, when we’re in the middle of them too! This modern idea that we should just ‘be ourselves’ seems nonsense to me. In the first instance, what does it mean, to ‘be ourselves.’ We are all products of society, of tradition, of upbringing, of peer groups and so on and so on, all of which we are continually striving to negotiate with and balance. That is life! The therapy-idea that we should find ‘who we really are’ does not convince me. We are all the time making decisions, unconscious, semi-conscious and fully conscious, about what tone of voice to use, what words to employ, how long to stay, when to leave etc etc. We even do it when we’re on our own. So the question is never, ‘Should we play games?’; the question is, ‘What games should we play?’ And my view is that the games that Jane Austen’s heroines play are the best ones: enlivening and emancipatory…and successful! As for today’s ‘hook-up’ games…I confess I find them shocking. At the very least, they seem to me to demand a kind of emotional flexibility and indifference to the world and those in it of which almost no woman is really capable. Women should tender themselves more dearly…not out of some prudish morality, but out of a desire for dignified self-command, a desire for survival even! Love always requires a leap of faith in the end, but there really is no need to leap too soon or too often. Psychologically, we are simply not built for that.
Why do you think young women today still pick up books like The Rules? Do you think our society still promotes attitudes that are unhealthy for women looking for love and why?
Books like The Rules trade on the lowest common denominator clichés, which, among other things, do men a real disservice! The assumption is that a man is there to be ‘captured,’ as if he is a wild animal or a nasty rhodent. And the project of capture licenses all manner of subterfuge, underhand tricks and strategies. The whole affair ought to be much more straightforward and much more of the Jane Austen style: ‘I’m an adult woman, interesting and attractive, and one of my real hopes in life is to meet and marry a man, one of whose real hopes is to meet and marry a woman.’ It’s simple and dignified. Books like The Rules reduce us to the kind of scheming pretenders that justify all those offensive clichés about women that are bandied about in the media and elsewhere. They begin with something like: ‘Let’s face it, girls: for all our career success and nights out on the town, we know that, secretly, we’d all like to get married…’ As if getting married is somehow anathema to career success or a meaningful social life! As if getting married is something you have to wish for in secret! The whole thing is very good for the dating guide industry, of course. But it is very bad for women and very bad for romance.
Elizabeth Bennett has long been regarded as one of Austen’s most loveable and celebrated heroines. In your book, you mention how Elizabeth’s wit is part of what catches Mr. Darcy’s eye (or ear). What is your idea of “wit” for young women in modern society?
Isn’t it amazing that a character from a novel that is over 200 years old still has lesson to teach us women about how to be independent minded and interesting? Reading Elizabeth Bennet’s repartees in Pride and Prejudice, I am always struck by how uncommon it is nowadays to hear women hold forth in that style, especially in mixed company – so mischievous, so challenging, so seriously flirtatious, so playfully reserved…it is quite simply wonderful! I think that young women these days cannot go wrong by taking Lizzy as their guide. But to do that involves more than we might think. To hold forth as Elizabeth does, with interesting and articulate opinions and in a manner that sets her up as equal to the men about her, a woman must develop opinions and learn how to talk on their behalf…so she’s got to start reading books, looking at news reports, thinking about issues of current interest and topics of universal concern. It’s a whole lifestyle. We’re these days more than ready, it seems, to work at looking good. But it is equally important to work at sounding good. You gotta be able to talk the talk, which means you gotta be able to think the thoughts…
How do you view feminism when thinking about Jane Austen and her work? Obviously it wasn’t even considered for her characters (and Mary Wollstonecraft had just recently released her Vindication on the Rights of Women). What is your personal view on feminism and young women today?
True, feminism wasn’t out there as an idea in Jane Austen’s time. Wollstonecraft had recently published her book, of course, but her husband had even more recently published Wollstonecraft’s memoirs, which gave all kinds of salacious detail about Wollstonecraft’s licentious lifestyle. The result was that by the time Jane Austen came to write her novels, what we might now call feminism was well and truly linked to utter debauchery…certainly not an option for the genteel daughter of a clergyman! But what is really interesting is that Jane Austen still managed, in that hostile climate, to present us with women of ideas and integrity and to show us that these women are at least the equal of the men about them. Quite an achievement! The problem with so-called feminism today is that it seems so easy, and is really, for the most part, at the service of the corporate capitalism that has taken over everything. Women are delaying marriage and childbirth until it is dangerously late; women are consigning their young babies to sub-standard institutions of ‘care’; women are working at shockingly underpaid jobs and trying to manage the increasing administration that comes with every facet even of home and family life….and all in the name of feminism! The first thing we need to do today is to get a firm handle on how the rights of women are being used to exploit and undermine women, left, right and centre…
Which is your favorite Austen novel and why?
Without hesitation, my favourite Austen novel is Persuasion. I remember reading it when I was 15 or so, and thinking as I was reading it: ‘I just can’t believe that this book was written! I just can’t believe there’s a story this good!’ It is the perfect romance. The Pride and Prejudice conceit, of the two protagonists disliking each other initially, is good, but the Persuasion conceit, of the two protagonists having loved each other and now being estranged and having to fall in love again when they are older and sadder, is absolutely mesmerizing! Nothing could be better. And I have always loved Anne Elliot, with her melancholy and her quiet despair and her yet stalwart spirit and readiness to attend to those around her. Persuasion ends with the reunion of Anne and Captain Wentworth, but in the shadow of another war and an uncertain future. Which makes for a sober ending, even while it is romantic. I think this is particularly relevant today, with the enormous shadow of financial and ecological collapse that looms over us. How can we go on?, we might think. How can we marry and have children? But read Persuasion and you find out how we can go on and love and marry and have children: somewhat quietly and soberly, perhaps, but with real joy nonetheless. Chesterton comments on a character of Dickens, that he ‘takes his pleasures sadly, which is the only way of taking them at all.’ Anne Elliot takes her pleasures sadly, and that, for me, makes her the best of Austen’s heroines.
Thanks to Sinead for her time and wonderful answers!