By Maura Kelly
Co-author of Much Ado About Loving
Jane Austen seems to be everybody’s favorite writer—men I’ve dated have spent entire evenings singing her praises, and the ladies love her, too, of course. But for most of my life, I was vehemently anti-Austen. She had a decent sense of humor and her heroines could be feisty and strong-willed—I’m down with that. Austen sure knows her way around a plot, too; she sure knows how to keep the interpersonal dramas dramatic, the twists twisting. But her characters never seemed that complex or interesting to me—there were just so many society girls, so obsessed with marriage! What could I ever learn from reading about such people?
Nothing, I thought. But then, while researching my new book Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-so-great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, I “forced” myself to read her first published novel Sense and Sensibility. And once I got over my initial readerly pride and prejudices, I found myself loving it—and learning some valuable lessons about love in the process.
1) How to deal when you don’t hear back from him.
Sense and Sensibility‘s supporting heroine Marianne Dashwood arrives in London—the city where the flirtatious charmer she’s been seeing, Willoughby, has taken up residence. Eager to hang out, Marianne sends him a note, letting him know she’s in town. Marianne doesn’t have a Gmail account, of course, but she does have a fast-moving footman—and the servant has barely left with the letter before she begins “anxiously listening to the sound of every carriage,” eagerly awaiting his return with a response. (Does that sound familiar to those of you checking your inbox to see if you’ve heard back yet? It sure does to me.)
Days pass, however, without any Willoughbethean word. The very same kinds of questions that any one of us would have cross Marianne’s mind: Did he get the note? Is he ill? Was it something she said? But unfortunately, she doesn’t wonder enough if he’s just a plain old cad—until she discovers he’s engaged to another woman. Poor Marianne’s experience confirms that then, as now, if a romantic interest takes too long to write back, it doesn’t bode well—and you should do yourself a favor by moving on quickly, and trying not to fret too much.
2) Why it’s often not you—it’s him.
As Marianne much later finds out, Willoughby lost interest not because of anything she did, and not because that new perfume of hers gave him a headache either. In reality—as he later confesses to her sister—he totally loved her, but eventually decided got engaged to another, much wealthier woman because he needed her money; he was basically broke.
Very often, when flirtations or relationships don’t work out, it’s not because of something deeply unappealing about you, something weird you did, or even because you didn’t realize until later that your fly was down the whole night. Usually, it’s because of fundamental incompatibilities. Often, the person in question either needs or wants a completely different kind of life partner—perhaps with someone who doesn’t want kids, or wants them very soon; someone who wants to move in together pronto, or someone who’d rather maintain separate apartments forever; and even, sometimes, unromantic though it may be, someone who has a lot more cash.
3) Why girls who like nice guys don’t finish last.
Willoughby inspired wild passion in Marianne—but as she seems to have learned (and as I’ve personally noticed), there’s a reason we describe the “crazy connections” we sometimes feel as crazy: A lot of times, they’re a little nuts. People who are good at making us feel instantaneous infatuations can be bad at working through problems and sustaining relationships. They’re often thrill-seeking types, out for the excitement of forging the initial bond, less interested in the calm that comes as you settle into a serious relationship. In contrast, nice guys—like Marianne’s sweet neighbor, Colonel Brandon—might not make us swoon like the girls at a Beatles concert, but they’re frequently more reliable, stable, and trustworthy than the world’s Willoughbys. And that’s my favorite Sense and Sensibility lesson of all: A love built slowly with a good person who may not have the most dazzling personality ever but cares deeply for you and wants to make a serious commitment—the way Colonel Brandon did for Marianne—can turn out very nicely indeed.