Tuesday, April 17, 2012

All I Needed to Know About Men I Learned from Jane Austen, Part 5: Mr. Darcy

"May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly." 
-Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 18

My Dear Reader,

When you get to the end of Pride and Prejudice, you want nothing more than to find your own Mr. Darcy and live happily ever after. But when Elizabeth Bennett first met her Mr. Darcy, she wanted nothing more than to watch him take a long walk off a short pier.

Love can be a complex situation.

For example, you can meet a guy and completely misjudge him. To make it worse, he can simultaneously misjudge you. And as a consequence, each of you can paint a picture of the other that is absolute fiction. You have made the time-honored mistake of basing your entire opinion of a person off of one short meeting, without realizing that you're probably missing something crucial.

It kind of reminds me of a few times in my childhood when I would come across people who would set themselves apart from a group, and I'd always assume that they were snobs. Why else would they be looking down their noses at the rest of us? It took a very wise church youth leader to point out the possibility that those snobs could actually be acting that way out of shyness.

And that's something like what Darcy is going through. At the beginning of the book, he's helping his best friend settle into a new place with different, unfamiliar customs and attitudes. Not surprisingly, he likes home a lot better. I think it's because at home, Darcy knows who he is and what he needs to do. But in Meryton, he's a stranger in a strange land.

Add to that the fact that Darcy doesn't seem to be the kind of person who flourishes in big group settings. He prefers small, intimate events. But the first time he is immersed in this new community of people, it's at a crowded dance, where there will be a lot of people who will expect a great deal out of him. As a wealthy man from out of town, he knows he'll be in the spotlight and something of social target.

Lovely.

So, Darcy ends up on the defensive at that first dance, using pride to mask the insecurity he feels. And when his friend tries to throw him headfirst at some country girl, he is automatically and violently opposed. He even says some very unkind things. Unfortunately for him, Darcy is overheard, and country girl, Elizabeth, ends up basing her entire opinion of him on those words. From that moment forward, every move he makes is colored by this view that she has of him, which leads her to a lot of unfair conclusions. It takes the entire rest of the book for Elizabeth to realize that Darcy is not a really big jerk. He's just a guy that did one very jerky thing.

The genius in this dynamic is that neither party is free from blame. Darcy did say some pretty harsh things that he would later deeply regret, and while her sarcasm hides it well, Elizabeth is probably very deeply embarrassed. Humiliated, really. She exacts revenge by taking a little too much joy in Darcy's flaws. She even clings to them when she is presented with evidence of his good character. It's almost as if she prefers it if he's not good enough for her. But considering all of the flawed men that come Elizabeth's way, I think that's pretty understandable.

Because sometimes, I think we are just afraid. I think we're getting ready to take a chance, and we can only think about all of the other chances we've tried to take and how it has all gone horribly, horribly wrong. You remember what it was like go in confident and full of hope, and come out a failure. So, you see one thing you don't like, and you get scared that it's all going to happen again. I mean, you're not crazy. You know that doing the same thing over and over again will most likely produce the same, painful results.

And after all that, it's easy to start believing that failure is inevitable.

Elizabeth isn't going to get anywhere with that mindset, just as Darcy won't get anywhere with his. To move forward, they will both have to change. In a way, you can look at the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy as two journeys of repentance that happen to converge at the end.

But I think Jane Austen is trying to teach us something about what love is supposed to be.

Perhaps it is this journey Elizabeth goes on that distinguishes Darcy from Wickham, Collins, and Bingley. Perhaps Darcy and Elizabeth are good for each other because they challenge each other in the right way. As much as Elizabeth is hurt by Darcy, she is also intrigued by him. As much as she wants to hate him, she has this constant, nagging feeling that there is something she's missing. She's smart enough to see that the facts aren't lining up with her opinions, but she has to overcome her hatred of being wrong and her fear of being right before she can see things as they really are, and before she can see that Darcy is a complex individual.

And it's when she starts to unravel the complexity of Darcy that Elizabeth starts falling in love with him. It's when she has to stop seeing things from her perspective and look through his eyes that she really understands why he acts the way he does, and something changes in her. She doesn't stop being the intelligent, compassionate, fiery character that we love. If anything, her new understanding of human nature makes her more intelligent and compassionate, and her passion for Darcy intensifies her inner flame. She's even brave enough to know what she wants, and fight for it.

So, while Wickham would use her, Collins would diminish her, and Bingley would stagnate her, Darcy makes Elizabeth . . . Elizabether. Without compromising the integrity of who she is, he has motivated her to be a better person. After falling in love with Darcy, Elizabeth becomes the kind of person who would be pretty good at being in a lifelong romantic relationship.

And that's only fair, because she's doing the very same thing to him. She is drawing him far, far out of his comfort zone and forcing him to look at things and at people that he thought were far beneath his notice. She makes him swallow his pride and be very, very brave. She makes him brave enough to be, like Elizabeth, a fighter.

And maybe that's what love is supposed to be. Not two perfect people with a perfect relationship, but two imperfect people who are just trying to understand each other. Maybe love isn't just about the butterflies and picnics, but that there's some kind of purpose to it.

Maybe we don't need to just be looking for love. Maybe we need to be looking for love that makes us better than we are. Maybe we need to be looking for love that makes us smarter, kinder, and braver.

Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice while she was about the age Elizabeth is in the novel, and I imagine that she was going through similar romantic trials and tribulations. I wonder how much of her personal journey is reflected in the life of Elizabeth. I wonder if she was inspired to write about Elizabeth's romantic struggles in order to warn us of the frustrations ahead and encourage us to avoid the dangers of settling for the wrong person. I wonder if she's telling us that if we can't find our Darcy, it's better not to find anyone at all.

Jane Austen never found the kind of love that Elizabeth did. She never married, even though she had the opportunity*. Perhaps she chose a life of solitude because she had bouquets full of Wickhams, Collinses, and Bingleys, and that just wasn't enough for her.  Maybe she's trying to tell us that that it shouldn't be enough for anyone.

And if that's what Jane Austen says, then really, it's good enough for me.

Regards, best wishes, and your very own Darcy,

-Cecily Jane

*Jane Austen once accepted a marriage proposal, then changed her mind the next day. My guess is that he was a Collins.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

All I Needed to Know About Men I Learned from Jane Austen, Part 4: Mr. Bingley

"Well, my comfort is, I am sure Jane will die of a broken heart, and then he will be sorry for what he has done."

-Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 40

My Dear Reader,

When surrounded by Wickhams and Collinses, you would think that a Mr. Bingley would be a sight for sore eyes. And, for a short time, he is. Mr. Bingley is, after all, not a sleaze bag. He's even a pretty good guy. Sometimes, that's more than enough.

The problem with a Mr. Bingley, though, is that's he's all wrong for you. There is something about him. It doesn't make him a bad person; it just makes your personalities incompatible. Maybe you find him boring or irritating. Maybe you think he's too cheerful. Maybe he's in love with your sister/best friend. Maybe he's from Canada. For whatever reason, the two of you are destined to be no more than friends.

And sometimes, that can just break your heart.

Not because you have feelings for him, per se. Your heartbreak will stem from the fact that after wading through an ocean of jerks and idiots, you've finally found a good man, and you just can't make yourself fall in love with him. Oddly enough, this can lead you to even greater despair than you were in before. Before you met Mr. Bingley, you thought that good guys didn't exist. Now, you know that there are good men out there, but you're just as far away from finding a mate as you've always been. It's almost insulting.

And, of course, you can ignore all that and try really hard to make it work. You can tell yourself that finding someone compatible with your personality isn't really important. You can even tell yourself that if you can't make it work, there must be something really wrong with you. And maybe there is, because at some point, you will be sitting across the table from a Mr. Bingley, and something about him will make you want to drive your steak knife through his heart.

That doesn't bode well.

Sure, your Madre and Padre will probably miss all of this. Sure, they will chalk it up to sexual tension and start planning your wedding. And sure, you'll be thinking of other places where that steak knife could go. But I find that when it comes to aggressive, misguided parental matchmaking, you can choose to be offended or amused.

I always choose to be amused.

Of course, Mr. Bingley would be perfect for someone else. What annoys you might easily attract another. So, you're happy to set him up with your sisters/friends. You're even over the moon when it works out and they end up happily ever after. As long as he's marrying her instead of you, everyone can go about their business without getting stabbed in the chest.

And when your sister/friend runs into a rough patch with Mr. Bingley, you will happily let her cry on your shoulder and tell you all her troubles. You, after all, have a unique perspective. You hold no malice towards the guy, but you're not blinded to his faults. So, when your sister/friend tells you her side of the story, you can easily see who is actually to blame. If you're a good sister/friend, you'll take her side regardless, but your clear insight will help you give her the right advice. And you even hope that if their relationship doesn't work out, he'll find someone who will be better to him than you could ever be.

I usually try to befriend the Bingleys I meet. A girl can't have too many guy friends, in my opinion, and surrounding yourself with quality male companions has infinite benefits. Not only will they be able to come over and lift heavy objects at a moment's notice, but they will remind you that you deserve somebody who deserves you. If you surround yourself with Bingleys, you will know what you are worth. They will make sure of it.

And, if Jane Austen is to be trusted at all, there is a good chance that your Mr. Bingley and your Mr. Darcy play basketball together. So really, you're just getting closer.

But more on that next week.

Regards, best wishes, and plenty of sister/friends and brother/friends,

-Cecily Jane

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

All I Needed to Know About Men I Learned from Jane Austen, Part 3: Mr. Collins

"Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart." (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 19)
My Dear Reader,

Last week, we learned all about Mr. Wickham, the master of deception.

Mr. Collins, in contrast, always believes that he is telling the truth. In fact, Mr. Collins believes that everything he says is witty, well-spoken, and revealing of the true nature of the human condition.

The only problem is that Mr. Collins is so self-absorbed that in his mind, he is the best that humanity has to offer. He has constructed an entire reality in which he is a god.

Collinses are sometimes hard to spot, because they all define "best" a little differently. Some of them think they have an unsurpassable intelligence. Others think that they have a face and body that would make a grown woman weep. Some just think they're superior because they happen to be male. Others think they are great because they have suffered a great deal. The worst of all Collinses are the ones that believe that they are better than other people because they are the most righteous. Only a truly deluded individual could miss that oxymoron.

When coming in contact with a Mr. Collins, the best case scenario is that they do not like you. Since a Collins thinks of himself a god, being unattractive to him makes you (in his eyes) an unworthy and rather repulsive creature. Sure, it means that he sees you as garbage and will treat you accordingly, but that treatment is preferable to being liked by such a proud fool. At least, aside from a few uncharitable comments, he will largely leave you alone.

When they like you, Collinses are almost worse than Wickhams because they don't just want to play with you, they believe that they deserve you. To a Mr. Collins, you are simply the trophy that he gets for being the best. He may shower you with praise, but do not be fooled. In a very twisted way, this is only Collins praising himself. By raising you on a pedestal, he is making himself the man worthy of such a divine individual. He is merely feeding his own delusion.

It doesn't matter to him that you find his hubris repulsive. (Hopefully, you do!) Your choices are not a part of his consideration; he owns you now. You exist only to reward his excellence. It may be difficult to convince a Collins that you have the right to make your own decisions, and perhaps even harder to make him believe that you do not find him as attractive as he finds himself. For this reason, he is almost impossible to get rid of, because a Mr. Collins is nothing if not persistent.

This, of course, brings you quite the dilemma. How can you get him to leave you alone if he won't listen to you? You may be tempted to be harsh, and this is usually my approach. It is very tempting to shatter that fantasy of his. But Jane Austen went a different (and perhaps better) route. When Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and refuses to believe her rejection, Elizabeth does not cut him down to size. Instead, she makes herself less desirable without actually being self-deprecating.

When Elizabeth turns down his proposal, Mr. Collins believes that Elizabeth has rejected him as part of a mind game. Perhaps he sees these kind of women as sophisticated and desirable. Elizabeth, however, greatly prefers sarcasm to mind games. So, she tells him the absolute truth: she is not the kind of wife he wants. Elizabeth is not concerned enough about outward appearances to make for a good trophy. She does not care about impressing people with fancy skills or lavish clothes; she cares about her family.

Really, they would both be miserable.

Elizabeth says, in effect, "I'm not the person you think I am (and that's probably a good thing)," and Mr. Collins backs down. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle uses a similar, yet snarkier approach with Gaston (a Mr. Collins if there ever was one), with little success. I don't think that Collinses are particularly good at deciphering snark.

Any sarcasm would have been completely lost on Mr. Collins. But apparently, Mr. Collins also has a hard time with the truth, because he still refuses to believe her. So, as a last resort, Elizabeth turns to a higher authority who Mr. Collins respects: her father. It is only then that Elizabeth can be set free.

Everybody has a boss. If you can find Mr. Collins's boss and get him/her on your side, you have a nice little escape hatch.

Collinses are everywhere. I've met far more Collinses than I have Wickhams. They seem to be everywhere I turn. Luckily for me, when it comes to men, I am very skilled at the art of escaping.

Regards, best wishes, and a mate who actually respects you,

-Cecily Jane