Jane Austen’s Advice on Love, Marriage, and How to Rebuff a Suitor with Clarity and Kindness
By Maria Popova
“We can never know what to want,” Milan Kundera wrote in contemplating the central ambivalences of life and love. Ambivalence about what we want may be among the defining features of being human and the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind among life’s most essential arts, but nowhere is our indecisive oscillation more potentially disastrous than in love.
How to navigate this all too common peril is what Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) addressed in a cycle of correspondence with her beloved niece Fanny Catherine Knight, whom Austen considered “almost another sister.”
In a series of missives written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice and found in Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) — the volume that gave us the celebrated author’s advice on writing to her other niece, Anna — she counsels 21-year-old Fanny through a courtship by a certain “Mr. A,” who had rendered the young woman first besotted, then disenchanted, and at last thoroughly confused about her feelings.
After hearing of Fanny’s fairly rapid loss of interest in the suitor with whom she had been so infatuated, Austen writes:
I was certainly a good deal surprised at first, as I had no suspicion of any change in your feelings, and I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea, and yet it is no laughing matter to have had you so mistaken as to your own feelings. And with all my heart I wish I had cautioned you on that point when first you spoke to me; but though I did not think you then much in love, I did consider you as being attached in a degree quite sufficiently for happiness, as I had no doubt it would increase with opportunity, and from the time of our being in London together I thought you really very much in love. But you certainly are not at all — there is no concealing it.
What strange creatures we are! It seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent… And yet, after all, I am surprised that the change in your feelings should be so great. He is just what he ever was, only more evidently and uniformly devoted to you. This is all the difference. How shall we account for it?
Twelve years earlier, Austen had undergone a similar change of heart herself — initially accepting the only known marriage proposal she ever received, by an unattractive and tactless but educated and financially secure man named Harris Bigg-Wither, by the following morning she had decided that the sensible practicality of the arrangement wasn’t an adequate substitute for love and retracted her acceptance. Perhaps it’s through this lens of personal experience that she gives Fanny a disclaimer of sorts:
I am feeling differently every moment, and shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your mind. I could lament in one sentence and laugh in the next, but as to opinion or counsel I am sure that none will be extracted worth having from this letter.
And yet, immediately, she changes her mind yet again and offers pointedly opinionated counsel:
Oh, dear Fanny! Your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, and most powerful it is. Among the multitudes, however, that make the same mistake with yourself, there can be few indeed who have so little reason to regret it; his character and his attachment leave you nothing to be ashamed of.
Having at first assured Fanny that she doesn’t seem to be in love, Austen pivots again and makes a case for Mr. A:
Upon the whole, what is to be done? You have no inclination for any other person. His situation in life, family, friends, and, above all, his character, his uncommonly amiable mind, strict principles, just notions, good habits, all that you know so well how to value, all that is really of the first importance, — everything of this nature pleads his cause most strongly. You have no doubt of his having superior abilities, he has proved it at the University…
Oh, my dear Fanny! the more I write about him the warmer my feelings become, — the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young man, and the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.
In a sentiment that Joseph Campbell would come to echo a century and a half later in reflecting on how perfectionism kills love, Austen adds:
There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own county.
Think of all this, Fanny. Mr. A. has advantages which we do not often meet in one person. His only fault, indeed, seems modesty. If he were less modest, he would be more agreeable, speak louder, and look impudenter; and is not it a fine character of which modesty is the only defect? I have no doubt he will get more lively and more like yourselves as he is more with you; he will catch your ways if he belongs to you.
Austen then advises Fanny to take the only honorable course of action in such situations — seek clarity in one’s own feelings and, if the seed of love is not found, be kind but clear in letting the other person know that the interest is not mutual, which may inflict pain in the immediacy of the disappointment but in the grand scheme of things is far more compassionate and noble than leading the person on without real reciprocity. Austen writes:
And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner, etc., etc., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once. Things are now in such a state that you must resolve upon one or the other, — either to allow him to go on as he has done, or whenever you are together behave with a coldness which may convince him that he has been deceiving himself. I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, — a great deal when he feels that he must give you up; but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of disappointments kill anybody.
But by the end of the month, Fanny has only grown more conflicted. In her final letter on the matter, Austen once again pivots and urges the young woman not to relinquish her independence for someone with whom she isn’t in love and who isn’t a true peer:
You will think me perverse, perhaps; in my last letter I was urging everything in his favor, and now I am inclining the other way, but I cannot help it; I am at present more impressed with the possible evil that may arise to you from engaging yourself to him — in word or mind — than with anything else. When I consider how few young men you have yet seen much of, how capable you are (yes, I do still think you very capable) of being really in love, and how full of temptation the next six or seven years of your life will probably be (it is the very period of life for the strongest attachments to be formed), — I cannot wish you, with your present very cool feelings, to devote yourself in honor to him. It is very true that you never may attach another man his equal altogether; but if that other man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect. I shall be glad if you can revive past feelings, and from your unbiassed self resolve to go on as you have done, but this I do not expect; and without it I cannot wish you to be fettered.
Fanny didn’t marry Mr. A, nor any other suitor during Austen’s lifetime. Perhaps Steinbeck put it best 130 years later, when he counseled his teenage son on love: “If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
Complement this particular portion of Jane Austen’s Letters with Kafka’s advice on love and patience, philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and stay in love, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, and philosopher Erich Fromm on what’s keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
Published December 16, 2015