The entertainment industry continues churning out updates of the Jane Austen oeuvre—from reverent Ang Lee adaptations to less-reverent eye-and-brain candy like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless. Just this month came the American release of the Austen–inspired Indian courtship film Bride and Prejudice. Less widely noted is a distressing sign that the Jane Austen craze has hit bottom: a bid to package Austen’s witty, astringent romances of Regency England into an all-purpose remedy for the harried, unsatisfied single woman, in Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating. Lauren Henderson’s book reads like a rather selective CliffsNotes, playing up themes already familiar to the legions of readers Drs. Phil and Laura have plied. Here, for instance, is Henderson’s typically wan reading of the Austen classic Sense and Sensibility: “Sadly, Marianne and Willoughby’s romance doesn’t end well; he marries another girl for money despite the fact that he’s in love with Marianne . . . Right now, however, what we’re learning from Marianne is that her warm, open manner captured Willoughby’s heart.”
In other words: Follow your hearts, ladies. But such dubious bromides aside, the publication of Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating does throw into high relief a key question that none of today’s Austen-appropriators have been able to answer satisfactorily: Why, exactly, do 21st-century women find so much resonance in Austen’s two-centuries-old worldview?
Of course, in one sense, Austen’s novels were the chick-lit of their day, burnishing romantic alliances still driven principally by real estate, dowries, and other mundane concerns, with a veneer of epic longing. More than that, though, the recent spate of Austen adaptations lets women believe that they can have it both ways, obtaining a comfortable lifestyle as a reward for holding out for true love. “Lucky Elizabeth!” Henderson crows. “She gets both the right man for her and, as an extra, a lovely way of life!” But to reduce Austen’s works to a series of do’s and don’ts is to gloss over their fascinating triangulation of love, wealth, and status.
True, Henderson tries to update the class issue in a chapter called “Don’t Settle—Don’t Marry for Money, or Convenience, or Out of Loneliness.” But she likens the plight of Charlotte from Pride and Prejudice to that of a hypothetical housewife unhappily married to a Harvard lawyer. The lesson? “Men are people, not walking, talking bank accounts.” For Austen, as for the new Mrs. Trump, it was never quite that simple.