What Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse taught me about romantic relationships
Lessons in love from fictional characters? You betcha.
Jane Austen’s witty heroines have enchanted readers for decades. And these women are equally matched with swoon-worthy love interests. (Have you or have you not asked, “Where’s my Mr. Darcy?” at least once in your life?)
And while you may think that romance novels perpetuate stereotypes or unrealistic expectations, I’ve found that these books share very simple principles to guide us in our quest for love.
As I’ve been on a bit of a Jane Austen binge lately, I thought I’d share my takeaways from Pride and Prejudice and Emma. My mom and I watched the new movie adaptation of Emma (highly recommend), the BBC miniseries, and Clueless (which, if you weren’t aware, is based on Emma). And then we turned to Kiera Knightly’s Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth Bennet’s and Emma Woodhouse’s stories of love and self-discovery have much to teach us about real-life relationships (warning, spoilers ahead!):
Be patient with your love story.
Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley were men worth waiting for. You’ve heard the saying, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs…”
Both Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse were unusual for being older and unmarried. In their time, it was much more common to marry young. Elizabeth is 20 and Emma is 21; one of Elizabeth’s sisters, by contrast, gets married when she’s 15.
Emma declares at the beginning of the book that she will never marry. She feels it’s her duty to care for her father, and she can’t see herself leaving their estate.
And, as it happens, neither Elizabeth nor Emma have found anyone to tempt them. While Emma is a bit more practical, Elizabeth is holding out for something most women of the day could not afford: true love.
Both Elizabeth and Emma had the courage to refuse proposals. Elizabeth’s refusal is a tad more scandalous if only because she doesn’t come from money, and there’s no guarantee she’ll receive another offer. (Well, we know how that goes.)
Point being, be patient. It may not happen according to your timeline (but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen at all!).
A worthy partner will challenge you and call you out on your flaws…
In Emma, the local vicar has a big crush on Ms. Woodhouse. Naturally, she has no clue. She thinks he’s enraptured with her friend, Harriet, and so she encourages his feelings.
As a reader, there’s no doubt who he’s after, and while he aggressively pursues Emma, he worships everything she does. He never finds fault with her. It’s a little cringey.
How boring would it be if your significant other always agreed with your point of view? And never has any thoughts of their own to offer? That’s not a person who will push you to grow.
Emma’s flaw is that she thinks she’s always right. It’s through Mr. Knightley’s rebukes that Emma develops some self-awareness and maturity. Nobody else challenges Emma to grow, and it’s one of the reasons she leads such a sheltered, comfortable life.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth doesn’t hold back when she tells Mr. Darcy what she thinks of him. But he gives it right back to her. And in the end, she acknowledges that she was prideful and too quick to judge him.
…but will love you in spite of them.
Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy are blameless. At first, he’s a little high and mighty, and she’s too quick to judge. The first time Darcy declares his love for Elizabeth, it’s beautiful, hilarious, and cringey all at the same time.
His delivery is not exactly “smooth.” Basically, he gives her a list of reasons their match goes against his better judgement, but then admits that he’s in love with her anyway.
“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” ~ Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Emma thinks that Mr. Knightley is always “scolding” her because he disapproves. Which, ok, is true — but he wouldn’t scold her if he didn’t care so much. He, better than anyone, understands Emma’s strengths and weaknesses.
He holds her to a higher standard and isn’t content to merely praise her for good intentions. And in the end, it’s clear that he’s loved her all that time — he saw all her flaws, and he loved her all the more for them.
You have to know who you are before you can be with someone else.
Considering the pressure women faced to make a “good match” in their time, it’s pretty impressive that our heroines weren’t willing to settle. Elizabeth and Emma were perfectly content in their singleness.
Jane Austen wrote strong, independent, forward-thinking women who valued sharp minds and quality relationships. This is not to say they didn’t want to find love. But they didn’t get married for the sake of getting married.
As strong-willed women, both Elizabeth and Emma knew they’d be unable to make a certain type of man happy in marriage… the Mr. Eltons and Mr. Collins of the world. Elizabeth and Emma valued their freedom and independence over financially advantageous but unhappy marriages. (So we can count them both very lucky that they marry the richest men in their respective communities.)
“It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.” ~ Emma Woodhouse, Emma
When Elizabeth first meets Darcy, she finds him to be cold and unagreeable. He makes a rude remark about her, but she refuses to let it bother her, and continues to be herself. She loves to dance, and laugh, and walk long distances even if she dirties her dress.
While there are plenty of contrasting characters in the novels we could describe as desperate for romantic attention (i.e. Elizabeth’s “silly” younger sisters), both Elizabeth and Emma find joy and contentment in their families and close friendships.