The Jane Austen Trap
Like most women, I have spent countless hours engaged in discussion and debate on life and love with the women I am closest to.
After a particularly grueling conversation with a close friend who was yet again having trouble in her marriage, it occurred to me that she was once again playing the role of a victim, biding her time in the bad relationship as she peeked around a corner, desperately waiting for her knight in shining armor to make his appearance.
Victim might seem an odd choice of descriptor, but can you think of one more apt? I see it all the time, both in real life and on television. An afternoon watching Lifetime Movie Network will give you all the proof you need. Pardon the sideways thinking, but can you believe it’s the number one cable channel for women between the ages of 18 and 45? Again, that says a lot about our state of mind.
So what is this victim trend I’m talking about? If you think about it, you’ll realize you already know it, and the victims- maybe you’ve even been one. The woman in love with a married man, who spends her holidays alone, drinking her champagne out of the bottle and wondering why he doesn’t love her the way she loves him.
The married woman who is walking around with a hole in her heart so painful she can scarcely draw a breath around it; a hole drilled in over years, formed by an endless stream of derogatory comments from her husband. The single girl who, rather than be all alone, sleeps her way across town.
At first I couldn’t imagine the motives behind this way of thinking. Why would women hurt themselves intentionally, seemingly blind to the damage they caused as they went about this all-consuming quest for love? I like to blame it on Jane Austen, mostly because she makes such a delicious target.
Women today have fallen into a trap laid by our own compatriots; we exist in a viper pit of expectations and longings that make us prey to those who want to profit off our gullibility and misguided thoughts. The truth of the matter is that we all want to be loved- not just with an ordinary love, but with an epic, sweeping love straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
How unrealistic is that?
Let’s face it. Jane created a world where the happy ending was the order of the day. Of course, she first distracts us with plenty of human sufferings and failing, but that just makes the stories even more seductive. In truth, I love her books and own them all. Her insights into human nature are sometimes so accurate that they are overwhelming. Sadly, she always follows them up by creating a perfect couple who live out their perfect love together in perfect happiness. Perhaps that’s where the ‘ fiction’ portion of her books comes in.
I’ll be the first to admit that its likely altered perceptions of love started long before we ever read the first lines of Pride and Prejudice, and I can easily confess to being a young girl waiting for my very own Prince Charming to rescue me from my commonplace life. I wanted him to sweep me off to his well-appointed castle in the clouds, where we would finish out our Disney-penned lives in complete and utter happiness. But it doesn’t end there; even with such a shaky foundation, it should be possible to recover, to build a healthy understanding of love. The problem is that our society seems bent on beating us over the head with fantastic tales of heartfelt love that are just plain unrealistic.
Despite the constant barrage of messages from family, friends and especially the media, most women will tell you that they gave up the search for a glass slipper long ago. Today’s woman is strong; she is willing to admit to personal flaws, to accept faults in those she loves and are even resigned to the failures of love itself. Even as we embrace these truths, we secretly set out to live as if we are different. Those truths don’t apply to us. They’re meant for the average woman, not someone special. And don’t we all want to be special?
It is a bit like the storyline from Sex in the City– jaded Carrie Bradshaw has seen it all when it comes to love, gone through every horrid, tawdry moment, but in the end she still gets the amazing Mr. Big to rescue her from an abusive lover- in Paris, of all places. Mr. Big has a laundry list of issues, but he’s fabulously wealthy and loves her above all else, so the match is made in heaven; complete with a giant closet to store a priceless wardrobe and an endless number of shoes. While it makes for enjoyable entertainment, how likely is it that this would happen?
The truth is that most women will go their entire lives without being swept off their feet by a Mr. Big. Instead, they’ll lead quiet lives full of desperate longing as they wait for something better to come along.
Why is it that we seem so incapable of admitting that it is the mundane that welcomes us with open arms, those very flaws and faults we all have that make up the true fabric of our lives? There are no grand adventures, no pirates swinging in to carry us off into the setting sun, no filthy rich men waiting to buy us a Park Avenue penthouse. It is this trap that gets us nearly every time- we set out to win over the hero, yet find ourselves murmuring, “I’m content” as we move into place with someone who wouldn’t even have been an extra in the film- then spend the rest of our lives playing the victim, as if Aphrodite herself had slighted us.
You might think the word mundane too harsh to apply to love, but a quick dictionary check shows that it refers to the, “Every day: found in the ordinary course of events.” I can think of no better description for the role love plays in our lives. Mundane love should be celebrated, not derided. It should be honored for being there when you need it, day in, day out. But instead, we spend our time longing for the fairytale. We are content, but there is something missing. Most women I’ve known say it is the passion that is missing- their loves are good, steady, strong, but there is no passion between them.
Is that really such a horrible thing? I won’t even pretend that there isn’t a draw to the breath stealing, heart pounding passion that we all want. And no, I’m not saying that deep, true love doesn’t exist. I’m simply offering up the possibility that it doesn’t exist in the form society has taught us to believe in it- that is lust, and lust doesn’t last.
If we can accept that there are no Mr. Darcy’s in our world, no Edward Ferras waiting to sweep us off our feet and out of our lives of quiet misery, we might be capable of enjoying the mundane love that surrounds us. Reality is far different from an Austen novel; most women I know would be happy to find a man who manages to at least pretend to listen to them and occasionally remembers to say, “God Bless You” when they sneeze.
Does this mean we should settle, accept less than what we want? Well, maybe. It depends on what we want. If what we desire is so unrealistic that it will never come to be, what happiness will we ever be able to find? How is it possible that we can exist happily under the misguided impression that we are Elizabeth waiting for our romantic encounter in the woods, while in truth we are nothing if not Charlotte, marrying our imperfect Mr. Collins and content to have found someone to share our lives with. Charlotte isn’t miserable, she isn’t pining away for her one true love to come and rescue her from her marriage; she’s working hard to be the partner he needs in return.
Before you say it, let me clarify. I’m not suggesting that someone stay in a horrible marriage. If there is no love, there is no reason to be there- and if it is an obsessive or abusive ‘love’, it isn’t love at all. Staying in a relationship such as that is the worst thing you can do; having the strength to leave is so hard it can seem insurmountable, but allowing yourself to be a victim is by far the worst thing you can do.
However, if the only problem with a relationship is that there is no epic passion, then maybe it isn’t worth throwing away. What man could live up to this expectation of perfection we have transferred onto him? They are only human, and in reality, they’re probably dealing with the same general fantasy- waiting for a school teacher by day, Playboy Bunny by night to break down in their driveway and ask to use their phone, sweeping them into a world of fast cars and faster women.
Yes, Jane Austen and all the others have laid quite the trap.
How is an ordinary woman supposed to shake this belief that love is bigger than reality, more rooted than the mightiest oak? Even Austen herself points towards them; just think of the beautiful, unspoiled Marianne quoting Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
And how fulfilling, Marianne tells us, to be Juliet or Ophelia, to sacrifice all that we are for the greatest of loves- to die for it even. How, then, do we live with the men we have chosen- the flawed men who can’t sweep us off our feet and rescue us? How do we live without those who make our pulse pound so loud it drowns out all reason?
I say that the test of true love, of the love in Shakespeare’s sonnet, is not if it burns with an all-consuming passion, but if it is mundane. Mundane love might not send butterflies swirling from your toes to your brain, but it stands the test of time, steady and true.
The problem then becomes clear: how do we know if we’ve found the mundane love of a lifetime?
The answer is simple: honesty. If we’re honest with ourselves and honest with the men we are involved with, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll find our happily ever after. Honesty says that you’re worth more than half a relationship. It says that the husband with a superiority complex isn’t going to become suddenly supportive and encouraging, but that you deserve better. Honesty whispers in the ear of the single woman, telling her that before she can find someone to love her, she must love herself.
Above all, honesty requires communication. Tell yourself the truth; tell it to the one you love, and if they don’t give you what you need in return, be honest with yourself. Accept that your relationship has failed the most fundamental test of all- that there isn’t even a mundane love. And if there is no worldly love, then face the fact that its time to move on.