The Jane Austen Approach to Guarding Your Heart

We’ve all been there, falling for Wickham’s wit and winning smile when we should have been paying attention to Darcy’s quiet kindness. 

Throughout her work, it seems Jane Austen sought to issue a warning to all eligible ladies: Beware the desires of your heart. Today, gone are the stories that promote this proverb, and so gone are the days of wise romantic choices. 

Take Sense and Sensibility.

Marianne Dashwood is only 17 when John Willoughby literally sweeps her off of her feet. Marianne is instantly smitten, and against the advice of her elder sister, displays her affection for Willoughby without restraint. She tours his house un-chaperoned, fantasizing about the day it will be hers. She openly flirts with him, spends every minute with him, and generally behaves as though they are engaged though no such promise was pronounced. 

Of course, Willoughby turns out to be a rascal, and because Marianne had allowed herself to become so attached so quickly and with such abandon, she nearly dies from depression and self-neglect.

Dating in the 21st Century

Today, Marianne Dashwoods abound and are magnified in our stories. Contemporary storytellers glorify the mercurial desires of the heart. “Do what you feel,” resounds from our radios, televisions, Kindles, and smart phones. “To behave sensibly is to be dead,” call out our favorite characters and most admired artists.

How many women in 2016 will attach themselves to men they know to be even rascallier than Austen’s scoundrels in the name of “following their hearts”? How many men this year will make promises to their girlfriends with no thought as to whether those promises can be kept? “It was what I felt at the time,” they’ll say. Well, who could fault a fellow for that?

The Jane Austen Way

Two centuries ago, Austen recognized the same dangers we face today: surrender to feelings can lead to a broken heart and a damaged reputation. So how do we guard our hearts without missing the chance to fall in love?

The alternative, Austen suggests, is to be an Elinor Dashwood. This elder sister of Sense and Sensibility restrains her heart and listens to her head. 

With Edward Ferrars, whom Elinor hopes to marry, she is open and kind and expresses all friendliness. And yet, she does not presume to possess him. Within her own mind, she is even hesitant to declare that she loves Edward. Instead, she trusts in the certainty that time can produce. She is patient, by George! What a novel idea (this puntastic moment brought to you by Husband Hill).

As a result, when Elinor learns of Edward’s secret engagement, her grief is never so overwhelming that she betrays that secret or harms her friendship with Edward. And at last, when Edward is free to propose to Elinor whom he truly loved all along, she can accept with a full heart. In the end, Elinor looks back on her behavior without regret. Can you say the same about your dating life?

Austen's Approach to Dating in 4 Steps

  1. Know the difference between friendly and flirty. Be liberal with the first and stingy with the second.

  2. Assume nothing about another person’s feelings toward you, and don’t be so darned desperate to know! Time will tell.

  3. Protect your self-respect and your reputation by restraining yourself. In public and private, establish a cordial distance both physically and emotionally.  In our era, this is a difficult tenet to follow. Deep intimacy is possible without excessive contact and/or emotional baggage.

  4. See the best in people, even when breaking ties. In my experience, a burned bridge profits no one.

Jane Austen wrote a book about sense and sensibility. About judgment and feeling. About prudence and passion. I think the title itself teaches the most important lesson of guarding your heart: recognize the difference between acting according to your emotion and acting according to your reason.  

I have so much more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave it for another (40) post(s).

What do you think? Is there danger in following your heart, or is it necessary to truly live? YOLO, and all that.

Well, tah, tah for now!