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Jane Austen’s best quotes: words of wisdom to live by

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Anna Brech
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With Austen drama Sanditon arriving on our screens this week, we solicit a little life advice from the literary great

Who needs agony aunts and advice columns when you can turn to the laudable pages of Jane Austen for guidance? She may have died over two hundred years ago, but Austen’s canny observations on womanhood, friendship and creative inspiration still resonate in the 21st Century. 

One of the greatest writers of all time was wise and wry in her observations on life. The sentiments expressed in her novels, along with letters to her beloved sister, Cassandra, are brimming with insight and the kind of independent thinking that placed her well ahead of her era.

While Austen’s books parody the world that she lived in, they also contain solid nuggets of wisdom on topics such as knowing yourself, finding happiness and making relationships work. Austen, it seems, understood human nature more than most.

With a new Austen drama hitting our screens on ITV this week, the time is ripe to revisit some of her best-loved quotes:

How to party (like it’s 1799)

A still of the 1996 film Emma

If you want to nail a bash Austen-style, there’s just one message: go big or go home. As she intimated to her sister, the author was not keen on the pressure created by small gatherings, instead preferring lots of guests – possibly at a ball or similar. Of course, you can always entertain yourselves with an Austen-style turn around the room, too; but either way, music is essential (and if you happen to have a pianoforte on-hand for the occasion, so much the better). Also, surprise parties are very much a no-no…

“We are to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties – they force one into constant exertion” - 1801 letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra

“One cannot have too large a party.” - Emma (1815)

“Without music, life would be a blank.” - Emma (1815)

“Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.” - Emma (1815)

The meaning of true happiness

Needlework, drawing and dancing were all considered suitable past-times for gentry women in Austen’s era. But though she satirised these activities in her novels, the author’s novels suggest she held a more down-to-earth idea of what constituted happiness. The question philosophers have been pondering for decades, Austen herself seems to have had a clear grasp on. Home comforts, books and friends to pick you up – who could ask for more? 

“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” - Emma (1815)

“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” - Northanger Abbey (1817)

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” - Northanger Abbey (1817)

Finding creative inspiration

Long before productivity became a buzzword, Austen fostered her own ideas on how to create a good work ethic. One of most celebrated authors of the English language had very little in the way of formal training, and so looked elsewhere – often in her immediate environment – for ideas and inspiration. According to Austen, you can do the same by virtue of an active imagination, doing as you please and maintaining a rigorous focus.

“Indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford.” - Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like.” - Mansfield Park, 1814 

“An artist cannot do anything slovenly” - 1798 letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra 

Staying true to yourself

She lived in an era of all-consuming social etiquette, but Austen was surprisingly open-minded on the power of the individual. A number of her quotes acknowledge the need to know yourself, own your own style, and understand your friendships. These steps, she implies, are the key to being authentic; an attitude that put her well ahead of her time.

“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.” - Emma (1815)

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience – or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.” - Sense and Sensibility (1811)

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.” - Northanger Abbey (1817)

The ambiguity of love

Image.net P&P 1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right

“The course of true love never did run smooth” is a Shakespearean sentiment Austen shares in her own work. Though she’s often characterised as a romantic author, Austen’s prose implies she was more of a realist when it came to understanding love. The author tells us romance is not static but instead a changeable and often ambiguous force. It’s made murkier still by human emotion, causing us to hide our feelings – or aim too much.

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” - Sense and Sensibility (1811)

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” - Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” - Emma (1815)

Being a woman in a man’s world

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Austen lived in an age where women’s rights were curtailed from every angle. Yet, she had the foresight to recognise this inequality and rally against it in her writing. Why should women fall over themselves to accept any offer of an engagement? Why shouldn’t a female protagonist be sprited, and stand up for what she believed in? The last quote is particularly apt at a time where we still deal with remnants of mansplaining, with women’s knowledge continuing to be seen as a threat by some.

“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 (1815)

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” - Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” - Northanger Abbey (1817)

Images: Getty, Image.net, ITV

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.