What Jane Austen Taught Me About Being Single with Purpose

Singlehood can be a story worthy of a Jane Austen novel, too.
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Singlehood can be a story worthy of a Jane Austen novel, too.

As a woman in her early twenties who has never been in a relationship or even dated, my single life often seems like a waiting game. Even when life goes swimmingly, and relationships with friends and family are fulfilling, there can be a pervasive feeling that something, or someone, is missing. The ache of singleness is real.

But even as I admit that no, waiting for love is not easy, I can see that there are merits in waiting. Just ask Jane Austen.

Any insight that I claim here comes less from my own authority and more from Austen’s last novel, Persuasion. Written late in Austen’s life, Persuasion reads as a meditation on time, age, memory, and waiting. In fact, at 27, Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest heroine.

At 19, Anne was set to marry Captain Wentworth, “a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy.” More remarkable is that the two were “deeply in love,” a little detail that may seem obvious, but in Austen’s day, marriage was more of a social contract than a union of love. However, a trusted family friend, Lady Russell, persuades Anne to break off her engagement, and Anne concedes. Eight years of singleness later, the story of Persuasion picks back up with a matured, changed Anne.

Though our stories are different, Anne’s lessons are ones that I have taken to heart, namely that a “waiting” period can be fruitful, even fulfilling. We may feel like time is lost in waiting for love, but instead, time as single women can be spent becoming more of ourselves. Singlehood, with its ups and downs, can be productive and meaningful not only in the present but also as preparation for whatever, or whomever, the future brings. Here’s what I’ve taken away from Austen’s Anne Elliot.

01. Singlehood can be a time of self-development.

As I said, Anne is Austen’s oldest heroine, but she is also arguably her wisest. Anne is a self-assured woman with an established sense of who she is and what she wants; she’s had time to figure that out. “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen,” Austen writes. Anne is more discerning now, no longer easily persuaded. Her sense of self fully developed only after her engagement ended, in her years of singlehood.

Consequently, her self-worth need not be validated by a relationship. When another suitor enters the picture, winning Lady Russell’s approval, it doesn’t take Anne long to see a red flag: This man is cold and selfish, and Anne can say with certainty that he isn’t for her.

We can spend our time as single women focused on the men who will someday enter our lives and sweep us off our feet—or, like Anne, we can take advantage of this time and cultivate ourselves, our interests, and other relationships.

02. Being single does not mean you have a fatal flaw.

Anne believes she would have been happier had she remained engaged to Wentworth, but she blames neither Lady Russell nor herself. Anne recognizes her mistake, but rather than wallowing in what went wrong, she takes a lesson from it. She realizes, first, that breaking her engagement was a lapse in judgment, and, second, she is not fundamentally flawed; this acceptance allows her to move on with her life.

I have to admit, I’ve played the single-girl blame game: believing that there’s either something wrong with me that has kept me single (I’m awkward) or that something’s wrong with guys for not asking me out (they’re immature). I have to remind myself that singleness, itself, is not a flaw. Single life and relationships alike are matters of circumstance and compatibility—and I can’t blame myself, or anyone, for that.

03. Singleness doesn’t have to mean self-centeredness.

We often hear that our twenties should be our “selfish” years, meant for exploring, indulging passions, and making mistakes—and being a twentysomething should bring a degree of self-discovery. However, rather than a decade of self-centeredness, can’t we develop and discover ourselves while we give of ourselves?

Anne knows that her time is not her own. She cares for others in their sickness and suffering. She is considerate, often putting others’ needs and problems above hers. She knows how to truly listen. Anne turns her solitude around by stepping outside of herself.

04. Waiting teaches us what we truly desire.

After eight years, Anne and Wentworth meet again as if strangers. Reacquainting is nerve-wracking, even painful, for Anne, as she must face her mistake of leaving Wentworth as well as her persistent feelings for him.

Yet, time spent in the same social circle allows Anne and Wentworth to realize their “true attachment and constancy”; that is, their abiding love for each other. Eight years apart has given them time, even if more than enough, to figure out what they both truly desire in life—and that happens to be marriage to one another. Swoon!

Austen gives readers the most satisfying ending when Anne and Wentworth finally reveal their love and how long they have loved each other in separation. In Austen’s novels, knowing what we want and waiting in anticipation for that outcome often means the most satisfaction in the end—and we may find this to be true in life, as well.

05. There is always more to look forward to, even the unexpected.

Anne and Wentworth do not look to the past but rather to a shared future together. Instead of mourning lost time, they rejoice in the sweet serendipity that brought them together again. I imagine that when Anne ended her engagement to Wentworth, neither believed they would once again share each other’s happiness, much less share their lives together. Even if Anne and Wentworth anticipated meeting again, could they have anticipated the beautiful love story that resulted? Don’t spend your time as a single woman stewing in the passage of time or things that could have gone differently. Know that the future will bring new and great experiences, and be ready to embrace them.

Persuasion attests that the surprises of life, those unexpected twists of fate, can make for our most wonderful stories. And if you’re single, that’s exactly what you have to look forward to. They say that once you stop looking, someone will come along. So stop searching, and focus on being you so that when the right person comes along, you’re in a good place to be in a relationship.