A younger and much less wise version of myself once had a crush on a certain boy. He was cute, he was smart, and he was just a little bit too full of himself. In other words, he was my Darcy. Whenever we ran into each other, we bantered, exchanged barbs, and even argued. It was fate. And, having read my Austen, I settled in and waited for him to realize that we were sharp-tongued soulmates, meant to verbally duke it out for eternity. Then a funny thing happened: absolutely nothing. My lively wit never prompted him to notice my "fine eyes," and no courtship whatsoever ensued. I was baffled. Worse, I began to realize that a lifetime of this sparring would be downright exhausting. What was going on? Had Jane led me completely astray? If I weren't looking for a Darcy to my Elizabeth, what were my other dating options?
Any reader of fiction knows how powerfully a great book can shape your view of the real world. The novels I've read over the years have informed my beliefs about the world around me -- including the world of dating. In the course of my literary education, I plowed through classic marriage-plot-centered novels, and no scrap of apparent romantic wisdom was left behind in my wake. Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet -- these were my role models in the realm of dating. The results were catastrophic. It turns out that trying to recreate the plotlines of romances written 200 years ago wasn't the best strategy for finding love.
Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote in The Atlantic that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice taught her valuable lessons about marriage. Fair enough. Read properly, Austen's masterpiece does illuminate the need for mutual respect, clear communication, and so on. But it's quite possible to read Pride and Prejudice, and many other canonical 19th century novels, and somehow take away all the wrong lessons about love and relationships. Here are 7 pieces of advice I gleaned from classic novels I loved as a teenager. Yes, I have acted on all of these lessons in pursuing -- or not pursuing -- past relationships. No, these relationships never worked out. So thanks a lot, 19th century novels! Without you, we'd never know:
Never put yourself out there. (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen)
This novel delivers its lesson once, then twice for good measure. Beautiful, sentimental Marianne falls in love with the man of her dreams, and she doesn't hesitate to make her availability to him quite clear -- she flirts, casts him longing glances, and even writes to him after he leaves town. Practical, reserved Elinor falls in love as well, but maintains the detached demeanor of a friend toward the object of her affection. Marianne's forwardness is punished when her swain throws her over for another woman and she's publicly humiliated, while Elinor is rewarded for zipping her lips with an eventual proposal and happy-ever-after. Don't worry, Jane, I took your point and continued to suffer that debilitating crush in silence. Lesson: Telling a guy how you feel will just make you look desperate -- to him and everyone else you know.
Just don't date at all. Ever. For any reason. (Portrait of a Lady, Henry James)
Wealthy young Isabel Archer begins this classic novel by insisting she wants to remain independent and unwed to enjoy her freedom. Unfortunately, she quickly abandons this principle when she meets the dapper Gilbert Osmond and marries him. Huge mistake. Soon she's shackled to a cold, arrogant jerk who makes her life hell. Touring Europe alone with your massive inheritance seems like a much better idea. And while that may not be an option for most of us ... controlling the remote for Friday night reality TV marathons is also a luxury we might not want to give up. Especially if our boyfriend could unexpectedly turn out to be inconsiderate, or even downright awful. Singlehood forever! Lesson: The minute you let someone charm you, you risk losing freedom and happiness forever. So don't take any risks.
That guy is being an asshole to you because he's so into you. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)
Ah, Mr. Rochester. The tortured romantic hero who inspired a million girls to hold out hope for that adorable, brooding guy a grade above them who tortures them with snarky insults and always seems to be dating the most popular girls in school. What do his comments really mean?? And wouldn't he be happier with you than with that snobby Michelle, anyway? Deep down, he's probably just afraid to admit what a profound connection you have. Yup, that's it. I mean, Jane Eyre ended up happy with her confusing, hot-and-cold beloved, so why not you? Lesson: A guy might have many reasons to treat you badly, but none of them are that he doesn't love you.
If you hang around the guy you like long enough, he will eventually realize he wants to be with you. (David Copperfield, Charles Dickens)
Most women have at some point complained that a male "friend" seemed to disappear once he realized she wasn't going to break up with her boyfriend for him -- but hasn't that tactic seemed tempting to us all at some point? David Copperfield's Agnes Wickfield waits through the entire course of the novel, including David's entire marriage to another woman, for him to realize that she is his true love. Lo and behold, her years of steadfast friendship are rewarded with a proposal, allowing them to ride off into the sunset at the close of the book. Lesson: The best way to a guy's heart is to pretend to be his best friend and wait for him to finally see you belong together.
Never tell a guy your number. (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy)
If Tess had kept her past "sexual experience" (that is, her sexual assault) to herself, she'd have gotten to remain married to a stand-up guy who enjoyed hypocrisy and shaming rape victims, and the tragic events of the novel's second half need not have happened at all. She may have thought his confession of a sexual indiscretion as a younger man indicated that he would be open-minded about her not being, technically, a virgin, but somehow, he saw her lack of virginity as far more significant than his own. Double standards not being a thing of the past, your boyfriend might feel the same way, so better to just pretend he's your first so you can avoid that whole conversation and possible break-up, right? Lesson: Guys may have pasts of their own, but that doesn't mean they're open to hearing about yours -- so just pretend yours doesn't exist!
Date a guy who thinks you're just attractive enough to tolerate. (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
He's willing to hook up with you, so does it really matter that he once told your friend he thought he could snag a hotter girlfriend than you? Maybe he makes fun of your love handles, then gently suggests getting a gym membership. Don't give up! Tell yourself you can win him over with your vivacious personality. One day he'll find you beautiful. After all, Mr. Darcy went from finding Elizabeth Bennett "tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me" to proclaiming her "one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance" after a couple hundred pages of banter and general hilarity. Lesson: He might be settling for you now, but keep trying and someday he'll really appreciate you. Really.
Find the right guy, and you'll be happy giving up everything else to be with him. (Middlemarch, George Eliot)
Let's be real: No matter how important your graduate program, partner-track position at a law firm, or plan to start an NGO to fight cholera in developing countries might be to you, wouldn't a really great boyfriend be even more important? Dorothea found she couldn't have her ambitions, her inheritance, AND her beloved Will Ladislaw. But conveniently it turns out she's blissfully happy being penniless and devoting her time to being Will's wife and helpmeet, past dreams of personal greatness abandoned. And if you don't love someone enough to give up everything else you care about to be with them forever, why even bother? The minute he says "I don't know, honey, I really think I should take that job in Iceland, even though you just started your dream job at the White House," you should be ready to pack your bags. Lesson: True love should always trump practical considerations, including your own life goals, or it's not true love at all.