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Everything I Know About Life I Learned From Jane Austen

I'm constantly gobsmacked by how the insights of a woman living in rural England in the 1800s could ring true 200 years later

As a feminist English major hopelessly smitten with anything literary and British, I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to discover Jane Austen. By the time I was in my late 30s, I had read or seen almost every play by Shakespeare (except for maybe "Pericles" and "Coriolanus," because, come on, have you read "Coriolanus"?), and put in my time with Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and E.M. Forster. But I had never gotten around to Jane. Then, as I was approaching my 40th birthday, I decided this was a deficit in my life I most definitely had to fix, and I made it my mission to read all six novels before I hit the big 4-0.

My midlife nosedive into the world of Jane was as life-changing as the first time I heard the Beatles, or the first time anyone ever picks up Harry Potter. All of a sudden my world was bigger, lovelier, more colorful. I was suddenly immersed in the scent of wildflowers along the English countryside, the sound of pianofortes and clattering tea cups, the whispers of a million perfect sentences. Where had she been all my life? I fell hard, bingeing on all those BBC adaptations, getting into heated arguments with my friends over who was the dreamiest Darcy (I know I'm courting controversy here, but to me, Matthew MacFadyen striding through the misty moors is far more swoon-worthy than Colin Firth emerging from the lake with that wet shirt).

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But most of all, I am constantly gobsmacked by how a woman living in rural England in the 1800s could shine such a brilliant light on social axioms that ring absolutely true 200 years later. Some things never change:

Smart (and witty) girls kick ass. The women of Jane Austen don't get to actually do a lot, other than take long walks, drink tea, paint and embroider, go to parties, and occasionally act in a scandalous play in the attic with their cousins. Their career goals consist of marrying well. But within that limited framework, the smartest girls always come out on top. Lizzy Bennet, of course, who is "the clever one" with "the liveliest mind" amongst her five sisters, wins at this game, marrying one of the wealthiest men in England, not just for money but for love. That's the equivalent of becoming CEO of a company that's also saving the world.

Mean Girls are timeless. They were there when I was in high school. My daughters are dealing with them this very moment. And in a society where women had few ways to exert their power, being a Mean Girl was practically a national sport. Look at Caroline Bingley, the alpha girl of Netherfield, talking trash about both Lizzy and her lovely sister Jane as a way of manipulating the cute guys, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, into dumping them. Even Emma, the heroine of her own novel, has a Mean Girl streak, throwing shade at the hapless Miss Bates and freezing out her frenemy Jane Fairfax. In fact, Emma's entire character arc is about how she learns to use her social power for good rather than evil.

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First impressions can be shockingly wrong. Who doesn't love to instantly reduce a new acquaintance to a pithy, 10-words-or-less breakdown? (Insecure tech nerd with fake-hipster facial hair; "Real Housewives" wannabe with delusions of glamour.) But, as Jane tells us so brilliantly, those first moments are often a whole bunch of smoke and mirrors. To know someone's true character, you have to spend time with them, exchange hundreds of pages of dialogue, see how they react when faced with a moral crossroads. Think about how the flashy, charming Mr. Willoughby in "Sense and Sensibility" and Mr. Wickham in "Pride and Prejudice" seemed like total catches at first, but wind up being something very, very different. Meanwhile, the men our heroines first dismiss as shy, moody or awkward turn out to be golden.

Some moments are worth keeping private. The first Jane book I read was "Mansfield Park"not as universally beloved as "P&P," "S&S" or "Emma," but still full of drama, romance and razor-sharp social commentary. One of the most shocking things to a first-time reader, though, was how Jane gives us every thought in her heroine Fanny's head, every word uttered by the vast array of characters, until the moment when you most want a peek at the action—the declaration of LOVE after 47 chapters of heartache. And it is at that very moment that Jane pulls back and gives the characters their privacy, saying, "I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire."

Wait, what? She does the same thing in "Pride and Prejudice," the equivalent of a movie going from a sharp close-up to an out-of-focus long shot right during the best part. At first this infuriated me. But then I realized maybe Jane was telling us something. Could she have predicted a world in which nothing has legitimately happened until we post or tweet every detail about it? Perhaps she was sending us a message that the most romantic moments are best savored only by the two people involved, not their 638 Facebook friends.

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Don't forget to wear your boots in the rain. Lovelorn characters in Jane Austen are always getting sick or fainting or nearly dying because they took an impetuous walk in the rain. I know Al Roker wasn't around yet to give you the forecast in those days, but come on, it's always raining in England—grab a scarf and some Wellies on your way out the door!

   
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