REVIEW: "Jane Austen's Guide to Dating" by Lauren Henderson

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One might think, from the title of this book as well as the cartoony-cute cover design, that Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating is the latest chick-lit novel on the order of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or perhaps a tittering sendup of Jane’s work such as Pride and Promiscuity, but Lauren Henderson is sincerely earnest in her desire to help modern girls apply the old-fashioned common-sense lessons of Jane Austen’s heroines to their modern dating lives.

In the introduction, Ms. Henderson states that she wrote her dissertation at Cambridge University on courtship rituals in Jane Austen’s novels, with the disclaimer that she was too young and naïve to fully understand the lessons to be learned from them, and further states that her significant other is a “Henry Tilney.” With such bona fides at her command, clearly Ms. Henderson’s opinions on the subject command instant respect; and what’s more to the point, her advice is solid and commonsensical and would be approved by Jane Austen herself. Ms. Henderson preaches the virtues of good manners, patience and maintaining the proper balance between sense and sensibility—excellent advice in nearly any situation, including the romantic.

If you’ve ever wished you could conduct your love life like one of Jane Austen’s sensible heroines, Ms. Henderson makes it easy for you, breaking down the romantic relationships in the novels and pointing out what those ladies did right and where they step wrong—whether dallying with a “toxic flirt” such as Willoughby or Henry Crawford, not letting the man who interests you know it, or settling for the wrong man for the sake of security or social prominence. Ms. Henderson lists ten rules gleaned from the Austen oeuvre, such as “Don’t Play Games or Lead People On;” “Be Witty If You Can, but Not Cynical, Indiscreet, or Cruel;” and “Be Prepared to Wait for the Right Person to Come Along.” Each rule is illustrated with three examples from the novels and corresponding “real-life” examples of both wise and unwise dating behavior. We found the book to drag a bit in the “real-life” sections; we would have preferred more Austen content, though readers less familiar with Jane’s work might disagree.

Ms. Henderson’s manner is brisk and earnest, giving the impression that one is receiving a letter full of good advice from Aunt Jane, similar to those letters still extant written to Fanny and Anna Austen, adapted to the fast-paced lives of modern women. Much of the advice seems obvious, but we believe that many postmodern girls will appreciate having it all laid out so plainly. One longs to sneak a copy into Bridget Jones’s towering pile of self-help books (and we point, rather huffily, in Ms. Jones’s direction as a strong exception to Ms. Henderson’s assertion that British women are more sensible in manners of the heart than their American sisters).

Ms. Henderson shows an admirable knowledge and understanding of Jane Austen’s novels, and her analyses of the various relationships are extremely well-done. All six novels are represented, and even Janeites who are happily paired off (or, like Jane herself, happily single) will likely enjoy reading them. For those who haven’t read the novels, synopses of each are provided, as well as analyses of the individual characters.

Ms. Henderson also provides two quizzes: one to identify the heroine whose personality is most closely aligned with your own, and a second to identify your own Jane Austen hero. A chart shows which pairings work well, which could work under certain conditions, and which should be avoided: for instance, an Anne Elliot matches well with a Colonel Brandon, but not a Mr. Darcy; an Elizabeth Bennet would find happiness with a Henry Tilney, but not an Edward Ferrars. (One can imagine the eyes of fan fiction authors lighting up over the possibilities of this chart!)

We found the book charming and fun; less lightweight and more enjoyable than expected. We are also assured that our quest for a Henry Tilney of our own is an honorable one (finding our quiz results place us firmly in the Elizabeth Bennet category), and rather wish that Ms. Henderson had provided a map of where we might run one to ground. Rest assured that when we manage this Herculean feat, we will apply her excellent advice to keep him around.