Jane on the Brain: Austen Advice-Book Trend Peaks

Why didn't it take much Persuasion for today's self-help readers to turn to 200-year-old guidance?

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Amy Smith was in Argentina when she struck up a conversation with a stranger about literature—specifically, about Jane Austen. That wasn’t unexpected: Smith, an English professor at California’s University of the Pacific, was in the middle of a year spent traveling through Latin America and leading Austen-centric reading groups. But that conversation was special. Jane Austen turned out to be, as the Gardiners were to Darcy and Elizabeth, the means of uniting them. The travelogue memoir that came out of Smith’s trip, All Roads Lead to Austen, came out on Friday, during Smith’s honeymoon with the very man to which she was speaking.

Jane Austen was more than a conversation-starter. She was also a source of guidance for Smith. “Austen is always big on people being good listeners,” she says. “I think the idea of being able to be open and receptive, not going into something with your mind made up, that was something that applied.” But while Amy Smith’s romantic story may be unique, her use of Austen as a self-help manual is part of a much larger trend. In the past two months alone, three such books have been published: April saw Elizabeth Kantor’s The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, which takes dating advice from Austen’s characters, and Lori Smith’s The Jane Austen Guide to Life, which uses the author’s own story as inspiration, was published in May.

“It seems a little strange to take advice from somebody to who lived 200 years ago,” admits Lori Smith. “We think the 19th century was so different but really they were facing a lot of the same issues.”

But if those issues haven’t changed for 200 years—and they haven’t, according to Kantor’s count of an average of 1.3 men with Fear of Commitment per Austen novel—then why is Austen having a self-help moment just now? This current Austen craze actually dates back almost two decades, to the wave of mid-nineties film adaptations that included 1995’s Clueless and the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow-led Emma. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, also from 1995, was an even more significant milestone, making old-timey Austen cool; the landmark Colin-Firth-in-the-lake scene was perhaps the century’s most important moment in Austen’s pop-cultural arc. But as we approach the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice’s original publication in January of 1813, Austen’s place has changed. We’re no longer content to watch fictional characters find true love: we want Jane Austen to help us out, too. And the authors who are ready to show us how say that there’s a reason why the spring of 2012 has been the season for Austen’s advice.

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For Lori Smith, whose Guide to Life is her second Austen-related book, it boils down to women’s desire to find a role model who is the opposite of those presented by reality-television and its hangers-on. “[Austen] really wanted her heroines to be women of substance, which I think is an idea that is kind of lost today,” she says. “There’s so much there that’s in contrast to our own culture where we’re looking for our 15 minutes of fame.” Austen, she points out, didn’t have any desire for fame or riches. Both Smith and Kantor agree that something has been lost in the progress made toward a modern understanding of femininity. Kantor, whose Guide to Happily Ever After comes from a conservative publishing house, writes about how women’s dating lives were better off in a 19th-century model. “A lot of things women today have been sold as empowering are not actually empowering,” she says.

But the forerunner of the trend, last year’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (out in paperback this April), may indicate a larger reason behind the Austen fervor. For one thing, it’s author, William Deresiewicz, is not a woman. He makes much, in the first few pages of his book, of the male reluctance to relate to the subject. He says the Austen appeal is not about dating or womanhood; it’s about moral order, and that’s why we need her advice these days. “It’s a cliché but nevertheless true that we lack any kind of moral clarity now,” he says. “All those traditional sources of moral authority have been significantly weakened.” Austen’s writing teaches a clear system in which strength of character is rewarded, and for traits that are still commendable two centuries after the fact.

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We can’t turn to modern authors for that instruction, Deresiewicz says, because it may not even be possible for writers to tackle the subject anymore. (As an example, he cites the films of Whit Stillman, which he finds unconvincing for their attempt to place action within a moral world that no longer exists.) “We don’t live in a world of settled moral convictions,” he says, “so I don’t blame the contemporary novelist who doesn’t do what Jane Austen does.”

But another book that came out just two weeks ago shows that contemporary novelists are at least trying to do what Austen did so well—although in a more literal sense than Deresiewicz suggests. The protagonist of Kim Izzo’s new novel, The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, tries to use the techniques explicated in all these other books—and some more money-oriented Mrs.-Bennet-style goals that a modern self-help writer might gloss over—to land a man who will take care of her in a moment of crisis, turning her modern life into the glamorized past that she imagines Austen inhabited. Although Marriage Manual is fiction, Izzo says that she has spoken to readers who plan to use the book like an advice guide, and that the idea came from her experiences looking for the hero of her own story. “That’s what I was feeling in real life,” she says. “It’s like a rescue fantasy.”

And it appears that now that the market is flush with Austen-inspired advice, we’ve come full circle. The original Austen novels were a source of guidance, and—since Jane Austen’s works seem like a perfectly ordinary place to find such advice—that guidance has become a source of fiction. Although there are plenty of Austen-related books due out in the next months, the crop of guide-to-life books has been depleted. It’s a neat conclusion to the story of Austen as counselor: it ends with a Marriage.

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