On Jane Austen and the jam-packed Stanford life

Opinion by Melina Walling
Oct. 9, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

I’m an English major at Stanford, and I still haven’t read Pride and Prejudice. I tried to start it multiple times while I was in high school, and every time, my eyes would glaze over. I would read the same passage over and over again. I would get halfway through one of Jane Austen’s paragraph-length sentences, start thinking about my to-do lists for tomorrow, and become completely lost.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I wanted to like Pride and Prejudice—it’s one of my mom’s favorite books. I wanted to be entranced by elegant dancing, family bonds and of course, the enchanting Mr. Darcy. But I just felt so far removed from the entire premise. I didn’t live in a world of marriages and dowries and estates. I lived in a world of AP tests and extracurriculars, with a different kind of family and social circle.

So when I found out I had to read another Austen work, Persuasion, for class this quarter, I was convinced that it would be a slog. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, I discovered a world of emotional complexity, presented in a striking and entertaining scenario. In Persuasion, our heroine Anne is convinced by a close family friend, Lady Russell, to leave the love of her life, Captain Wentworth. But eight years later, Wentworth returns—and Anne must wrestle with the feelings she never left behind, as well as the family advice she can’t seem to shake.

As busy Stanford students, Anne’s life probably doesn’t seem very relatable at first glance. Anne doesn’t have five club meetings, six hours of class, or seven PSETs due each week. She isn’t searching for an internship at the Career Fair or staying up late into the night talking with friends in a college dorm. She spends her time stealing long, meaningful glances across the room at Captain Wentworth, taking walks in the refreshing sea air of coastal England, and reading letters from various acquaintances and relatives.

But to say that this is all Anne can offer us would be an oversight. Anne is a young woman trying to find her voice. She’s surrounded by family and friends who are all living their lives in different ways; she’s trying to make sense of the different options she has for her own life. And she has to handle a barrage of forceful and often conflicting opinions about how she should carry herself in the world.

Faced with decisions that will impact the rest of her life, Anne has to strike a balance between trusting her own instincts and relying on the well-intentioned guidance of others. And without spoiling the ending, Anne tells us that she believes she was “perfectly right in being guided by [Lady Russell],” even though it caused her a great deal of struggle. “Do not mistake me, however,” remarks Anne: “I am not saying that she did not err in her advice.”

For many of us, when we arrive at college, we are surrounded by people who believe they know what’s best for us, including parents, coaches, advisors, mentors and friends. Sometimes they have very good advice, and they often know more than we do (like my mom recognizing the merits of Jane Austen much earlier than I did, for example).

But college is also about becoming more independent, as hard as that can sometimes be, and sometimes we get it wrong. We let other people persuade us, whether intentionally or not, that they know what’s best for us. We even let Stanford persuade us that it knows what an ideal life looks like, jam-packed with classes, clubs, and social events, with barely any time to breathe.

The key, as Anne learned, is finding a balance between looking out into the world for advice and trusting our inner selves. So maybe I’ll reschedule a meeting this week—I bet it would give me just enough time to try reading Pride and Prejudice again.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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