Here are the life lessons I’ve extracted from five favourite classics. Beware of spoilers. You’re very much welcome.
North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Plot: Country girl Margaret forced to move to industrial city after her dissident father leaves the church. Encounters poverty and crosses swords with mill owner Mr Thornton. Three bereavements, a strike and an unexpected inheritance later, it’s second time lucky for Mr T as he tries to win M’s hand once more.
Other works of note: Mary Barton (another workers vs mill owners saga), Wives and Daughters (stepmother drama, and scientific explorations in foreign lands)
- A primer on capitalism: this book is still my go-to for considering the difficulties of balancing workers’ rights with employers’ freedoms, describing how strikes nearly grind the mills into the ground, destroying the strikers’ future prospects, while business as usual simply entrenches the workers in poverty and sometimes fatal ill health. While Gaskell’s solution of responsible and collaborative paternalism works for Thornton’s mill, it still relies on the unenforceable goodness of the mill owner.
- What to do when the love of your life rejects you: Thornton, like Darcy before him (see below), has to make himself a bit more agreeable before he gets the girl. Keep those standards high, ladies.
- What to do when you inherit a load of cash: this is an interesting one. Margaret has seen and succoured crushing poverty at first-hand, but her first thought isn’t to give all her wealth away. Instead, she invests in the cotton trade, conveniently putting her soon-to-be-husband back in the black. Interestingly, Little Women’s Jo March also unexpectedly inherits her aunt’s fab pile Plumfield (see below), and decides to make it into a boarding school. In both cases, it is women who financially support their husbands, and in both cases sustainable business > philanthropy.
Author: Jane Austen
Plot: Fanny Price leaves home to be brought up by rich relatives. Only Edmund can soothe the wounds to her soul inflicted by her heedless cousins, mean old Aunt Norris and the worldly Crawfords. An adulterous affair, near-fatal illness and Sir Thomas’ slave-run plantation in Antigua complicate matters.
Other works of note: All of them really, but in order: Pride and Prejudice (see below), Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey
Notes: When I first read this book (before I got to Pride & Prej), I knew this was the best book I’d ever read. I appreciated reading about this alien world in which considering social niceties, putting others’ wishes above your own, and thinking out the impact your presence and needs have on others, were laudable traits.
- What to do when people mock your religion: poor old Edmund has to bear with Mary Crawford’s constant jibes at him for his decision to take the cloth, and I’ve no doubt this helps turn him off her in the end.
- How to be meticulously scrupulous: Fanny overanalyses every single situation to ensure she acts rightly and does not importune her fellow man. A typical Fanny reaction occurs when Mary Crawford offers to give her one of her many necklaces to wear at a ball: she recoils ‘with a look of horror’ at the prospect of depriving Mary of a trinket that she does not deserve and that Mary clearly does not care about. It’s so easy to impose our wishes, and to ride roughshod over others’ needs and feelings, even in the most minor ways, but Fanny reminds us not to. Haley Stewart says of the novel in this great article:
It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue.
Anne of Green Gables
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Plot: Red-headed orphan mistakenly adopted by cohabiting brother-and-sister duo, who wanted a boy to work on their farm. Chronicles the trials of having red hair, an overactive imagination, and accidentally getting your friend drunk.
Other works of note: I’m taking the below life lessons from AoGG and its sequels: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Willows, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley. I haven’t yet read Rilla of Ingleside.
- How to distinguish love from the pale counterfeit of infatuation: Anne very nearly agrees to marry the rich, charming and romantic Roy Gardner, but ultimately he’s a bit of a bore compared to her spirited childhood chum Gilbert.
- How to survive life with ginger hair: don’t try and dye it: Anne’s attempts to achieve raven-black tresses leave her with a green mop instead. Eventually she makes peace with her auburn locks and they become an object of admiration with suitors.
- How to make a ‘good’ living: Anne earns money from teaching and writing, and Gilbert becomes a doctor. Pre-corporate world, they work to serve their communities.
Pride and Prejudice
Author: Jane Austen
Plot: Darcy insults Elizabeth in da club, she takes four hundred pages to get over it.
Other works of note: See above.
- What to do when your only life option is to marry a wealthy man to prevent your family from destitution: nothing, of course. Cultivate your mind through extensive reading as though you’ve all the time and leisure in the world, and for heaven’s sake avoid marrying Mr Collins.
- Don’t judge a book by its cover: an earlier draft of the novel was called First Impressions. Lizzie has to revise her initial aversion to the stuck-up Mr Darse-hole, and look where it gets her – ten thousand pounds a year, and ‘What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages … !’, as her mother opines. And look at how the tables turned when it comes to Mr Wickham.
- How to get a husband: there are some valuable takeaways here. See above life lesson, and hint: when in Brighton, don’t elope with a soldier.
- How not to get a husband: treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen seems to be the moral here: Caroline fawns over Darcy to no avail; whereas Elizabeth initially scorns him under a veil of civil indifference.
- How to deliver a cutting rejoinder: quoth the jealous Caroline Bingley: ‘I believe you thought [Elizabeth] rather pretty at one time’. Darcy goes straight to the jugular: ‘Yes … but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance’.
- How to banter like the best of them: ‘Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extra-ordinary application [of asking me not to marry D-dog] have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged’ – Elizabeth “Couldn’t-Be-More-On-Fire” Bennet.
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Plot: Sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy find their place in the world under the moral guidance of Marmee and their father. Bumps along the way include grief, unrequited love, poverty and other people’s mean-spiritedness.
Other works: The below life lessons are taken from LW and its archaically-named sequel Good Wives (often published as one). I’m less bothered about the further sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Notes: For many years I considered this book an alternative Bible. Everything a girl needs to know about life is contained within these chronicles of family life:
- How to deal with bereavement: Jo finds herself very lonely after Beth dies but luckily a man comes along to save the day.
- How not to pick friends: only one of Amy’s rich artistic friends shows up to her artistic party after she’s spent good money on lobster salad. The rich Gardiners et al dress Meg up in a bosom-enhancing corseted dress and encourage her to play the flirt. Avoid toxic friends at all costs.
- How to pick a husband: Amy jettisons the charming Englishman Fred Vaughan, because he just isn’t Laurie; Jo wisely realises Laurie and her would never find domestic peace, and instead plumps for the kindly Professor who draws out her best side.
- How to deal with being in the friend zone: wouldn’t we all like the luxury of crashing out operas on the piano while touring Europe at our grandfather’s expense, as Laurie does. If that ain’t a remedy for unrequited love, I don’t know what is.
- How to grow out of being an awkward teenager: Jo approaches life with elbows akimbo, embarrassing her sisters with her lack of decorum while paying social calls. Meg says: ‘You are like a chestnut burr, prickly outside, but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernel’. Eventually Jo’s prickles fall away as ‘a man’s hand reached up to pick [her heart] gently from the burr, and find the kernel sweet and sound’.
- How to forgive: Amy burns her sister’s manuscript. No, it was not backed up to the cloud. Jo only forgives her after realising how much she loves her sister when Amy nearly drowns.
- How to maintain the moral high ground: Amy isn’t allowed to preside over the art table at her friend’s fair, but she generously allows them to sell her drawings anyway instead of responding with further cattiness.
- How to preserve your marriage: the arrival of twins drives Meg and John apart, and Meg is forced to take an interest in John’s political debates, while he has to feign an interest in her millinery, to bring them back together.
- How to be a writer: Jo abandons trashy sensation fiction that pays, in order to write from the heart.
On a more serious note, it’s probably no coincidence that my favourite classics are written by and about women. And it’s probably not surprising that I loved them so much as a teenager, since these are all growing-up stories. While there’s a lot to be said (including disapproving things) about how these novels portray women, it’s also striking that – despite being set at times when, our enlightened modern world would have us believe, women were systematically discriminated against, held back, coddled and infantilised – the resilient human (female) spirit shines through. What these books tell us most of all is to set ourselves apart from what is frivolous, petty, immoral or otherwise wrongly approved by our troubled society, and to maintain our independence and our integrity.