Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon, republished from Winter 2006
The premise of this work is that Jane Austen is somehow receiving letters from modern-day would-be heroines seeking her advice on love and life. All Jane’s responses are punctuated by actual passages from the novels and juvenilia to lend legitimacy to the responses, so while we get interesting modern problems, we are also treated to delightful snippets from our favorite books.
Overall, it is a clever idea and fairly well executed, aside from inevitable choppiness, one description of “Sex and the City” as being unrealistic (hmmph), and several paragraphs that feel just a bit too long for modern-day readers. Jane is, in essence, Dear Abby, with similar sharpness of tongue and strong views about the choices her correspondents make. In one of the early letters, for instance, Jane responds to a would-be heroine who fears she’ll die if she doesn’t marry soon; Jane tells her that she needs some “self-command” rather than the “hysterical raving” of the Bronte sisters, who set women “back hundreds of years with stories full of improbable circumstances and unnatural characters.”
The journey to heroine-ship relies on several important “rules” for being a heroine (such as “a heroine does not try to win a hero’s love” and “you will only recognize your true hero when you know yourself”), but most important is remembering to distinguish reality from fantasy. Jane advises every would-be heroine to read the novels again in order to become “as much a heroine as…Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, Anne, and yes, even Marianne,” but this book takes us through the novels and forces us to apply the principles therein to modern-day relationships. Though some of the would-be heroines have problems that even a dating simpleton should recognize as too obvious to require guidance (“I’m in love with a guy who hits on my sister”—are you serious? Does any self-respecting woman ever consider such a man seriously?), most of the issues Jane addresses here deal with far more subtle themes, and the modern single woman looking to be a heroine in her own life could use the lessons.
The crux of Austen’s argument (as channeled by Patrice Hannon) comes near the end, after she takes us through her stories and wrings forth lessons from them for our benefit. In a somewhat ironic twist, Jane cautions us that “an essential element in the achievement of that perfect felicity [her] heroines enjoy is the conquering of romantic illusions and expectations.” Besides sounding disturbingly like my mom, Jane here asks us not to judge the men we date by comparing them directly to Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, but instead to assess our relationships with our men using the principles of compatibility established in Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Jane urges us, as in the novels the real Jane urges her heroines, to “choose happiness” and reminds us that, more so in our times than in hers, women have the power to do so—hero or not.
[Ed.’s note] Author Patrice Hannon writes to us with the exciting news that Plume will be bringing out a new edition of DEAR JANE AUSTEN in July. The Publisher of Penguin, Kathryn Court, came into Patrice’s antiques store on Bleecker Street in November, bought a copy, and came back two weeks later to talk to her. A great New York story.