It was sometime in my late 20s that the thought struck me. I was single – I’d broken up with a very nice boyfriend (he was in Scotland, I was in Sydney, cue the drumroll of doom) some time before – and one day I thought, “You know, this might be the way it’s going to go. I actually may not end up married to a captain of industry with a house in the south of France and a yacht in the Mediterranean; or a member of minor European royalty with a country estate and a medieval parterre garden; or even a mild-mannered accountant with a clipon tie and the ability take control of my undeclared tax returns. I might not end up married to anyone.’
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.
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.
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.
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.