It was a startling thought. It’s not that I’d thought about marriage a lot, per se. But suddenly I realised it had always been one of my assumptions about how my life would go. “One day I will understand how to put on make up properly. One day I will be the sort of woman who looks good in scarves. And one day I will find a lovely man who is clever and kind and makes me laugh.” But here I was, in my 20s (and, in time, my 30s), still single, the lone and level sands still stretching far away, and not an eligible man in sight.RELATED: The Rise Of Single-Living Households
I expect there are women around who are naturally brilliant at dealing with this, but I was not one of them. I worried about it, and wondered what was wrong with me, and wished things were different. I discussed it endlessly with my girlfriends and gay friends and – surprisingly – my straight bloke friends. Most of them – even the straight blokes – were worried about the same thing in their own lives: we all spent countless hours talking about, and attempting to implement, strategies to meet people...so many hours, in fact, that I wonder what I could have achieved if I’d poured all that energy into, say, solving global warming or resolving third world debt. (Clearly, I have done neither, but eventually I wrote a book about dating, which is some consolation for all those otherwise fruitless years.)
As a group, we had a fair bit of success: one friend found her soulmate online; another was introduced to his wife on Valentine’s night; a third charmed her now-husband the night they met by her passionate commitment to the free nibbles at a catered party. (‘He seemed nice,’ she said afterwards: ‘but there were these chargrilled prawn skewers going around, so I wasn’t really concentrating.’)I, meanwhile, had no luck at all. Men came and went – some lovely, some awful, some who sank without trace beneath the blessed waves of oblivion – but no one about whom I could say with complete conviction, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, “He is perfectly amiable.” No Mr Darcys in clinging wet linen ever presented themselves to my astonished gaze; and in time it came to seem impossible – like space
travel or winning the lottery – that they ever would.
During this period I found great comfort, of course, in cocktails and pedicures and slinging my stilettos into my sequinned handbag as my girlfriends and I staggered home after another night on the town. But most of all, hopelessly daggy as it sounds, I found solace in reading. And not just any reading, but reading books either by, or about women who – surprise surprise – were not married, and who nevertheless had wonderful, productive, interesting lives. I read everything by Nancy Mitford (Dior clothes, garden apartment in Paris, long love affair with an irresponsible Frenchman, Gaston Palewski). I read endless biographies of Elizabeth I (plenty of poets and foreign princes hanging around, almost 50 wildly successful years on the throne, the best jewels in Christendom). And I read, many times over, the novels of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, at only 41. She never married, she had hardly any money, and she was struck by a terrible, ultimately terminal illness just as she was becoming famous. But she wrote six novels whose brilliance placed her permanently among the greatest writers of English literature. I loved her for these novels, of course – for her creation of worlds containing Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, and Emma and Mr Knightley, and sprigged muslin and Georgian ballrooms and bonnets with flowers on the brim – but I also loved her for the way she handled the non-fictional realities of her life. I loved that she didn’t complain about her hypochondriac mother or her straitened finances or the fact that it took 18 years between the first draft of Pride and Prejudice and its publication. And I learnt from her that a happy life does not, in fact, depend on finding the perfect man and settling down to a lifetime of unthinking connubial bliss.
Indeed, Jane’s one potential romance was scuppered before it even began. The Christmas she turned 20 she met a young Irish lawyer called Tom Lefroy. “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” she wrote to her sister Cassandra early in 1796. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together...He has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light.” But after only a handful of meetings, during which they flirted and sparred, Lefroy abruptly left Hampshire, perhaps whisked away by relatives worried about an unsuitable match. He never returned, but eight years later, Jane turned down an eligible offer of marriage from a man called Harris Bigg-Wither (yes, really), so perhaps she really had had her heart broken by Lefroy and didn’t want to try again – but I doubt it. I like to believe that in fact, she’d learnt to enjoy her life without a partner, and preferred it to becoming a wife. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, if she can do it, so can I.’
Of course, one of the main pleasures in Jane Austen’s own life was the enjoyment she took in writing, and not all of us can contribute half a dozen iconic novels to the annals of Western civilisation. But the crucial detail here is scale. As it turns out, happiness is not ensured by the lightning strike of enormous good fortune: winning the lottery, writing a blockbuster novel, or marrying Mr Darcy in a grey stone church with climbing roses over the door. Enduring happiness, in fact, is an accretion of small details, built painstakingly over time. It’s a coral reef rather than a volcano. Some people understand this much better than others. Buddhists, for instance, seem to have a pretty good grasp on it – and so, oddly, do social scientists. Various studies, the first in the 1970’s, have shown that people who do have great good fortune suddenly enter their lives (the 1970’s study interviewed lottery winners) are no happier six months later than they were before their wins.So I tried to take heart – and a leaf out of Jane Austen’s book. “To sit in idleness over a good fire in a well-proportioned room is a luxurious sensation,” she wrote to Cassandra on one occasion; on another
she gleefully recounted that “I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton tomorrow. We are to kill a pig soon.” She loved playing the piano, and making patchwork quilts, and talking about fashion. Of trimming a hat, she wrote “I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit – what do you think on that subject?” In her ability to enjoy these little details of life, she was surprisingly like Queen Elizabeth, who (despite having things like the defeat of the Spanish Armada to gloat over), seems to have dearly loved a gift-wrapped box or a new stump work stomacher or a clever (invariably flattering) verse. And she was also like Nancy Mitford, who adored buying clothes and having people round for tea and gossiping at the British Embassy.
When it came to cultivating my own happy, non-lottery (or Mr Darcy) winning life, I tried to pleasure in buying my daily coffee at my local cafe; in my (too few, alas,) matching bra and knicker sets; in finally figuring out how to make a chocolate cake that didn’t sink in the middle. And, Pollyanna-ish as it sounds, I’m bound to report that focusing on these things really did improve my state of mind.
I was not always terribly good at it – whole weeks would pass in a slough of despond about romance or work or the failure of my French rose to flower – but, like meditation or a high fibre diet, I continued to believe in it as a fundamental proposition.
And I still do. There is nothing like meeting your own personal Mr Darcy to bring you enormous, unqualified, in many senses unearned joy. But he alone is no guarantee of a happy life: how many girlfriends have you watched fall from incandescent happiness on meeting a man to dissatisfaction, doubt, even disaster six months in? Added to which, Mr Darcy’s appearance, as I know only too well, is in large measure beyond your control. It’s a matter of the stars aligning; the universe conspiring; the great karmic wheel spinning in your favour. Even in a world containing speed dating and online profiles and endless opportunities to play mixed touch rugby, there’s fundamentally not much you can actually do about it. The day to day details of a happy life, however, are yours for the making.For the record, I did eventually, miraculously, meet a lovely man who is clever and kind and makes me laugh. He does not wear long boots and a cravat; nor does he own a country estate in Derbyshire; nor, indeed, has he ever read a word of Jane Austen. The real word, it seems, is not an 18th century novel. But then, even a happy life is never perfect.