From Ballroom to Boardroom: Career Advice from Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the lessons drawn from Jane Austen’s novels can be applied to modern life. Movies such as the Jane Austen Book Club and Austenland suggest that the social landscape of Austen’s work can be mapped onto contemporary love and family life. But can the eighteenth century heroines that populate these romantic novels orientate us in the work place? Whilst none of Austen’s protagonists actually pursues a career, the literature itself provides a biting social commentary that reflects all too well on today’s office politics. If we take a closer look at the women of Austen’s novels we can find lessons from the ballroom that apply equally to the boardroom. 



 Elizabeth Bennet

Whilst Elizabeth, the most famous of Austen’s women, is often touted as an exemplar of independence and wit, the plot of Pride and Prejudice pivots on the defining flaws of her character. Hers are the foibles after which the title is alliterated. Amongst other characters who fall victim to these shortcomings, Elizabeth’s happiness is jeopardized by the persistence of her first impressions. Of this, Elizabeth muses that “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others”. From her mistakes, we can learn to have more flexible opinions and unfixed ideas. 


Emma Woodhouse

In the oft quoted opening sentence of Emma, the title character is described as “handsome, clever and rich”. Nevertheless, this story falls in the tradition of bildungsroman as the plot traces her mistakes and ignorance until she reaches a level of self-understanding. Austen’s authorial intrusion makes it clear that Emma posses “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” As Emma learns from her mistakes we learn from the dangers of investing too much in our self-confidence. We are reminded that whilst initiative is highly valued in an office environment, sometimes it’s equally important to consult a second opinion - best to avoid a drama of the Harriet/Frank Churchill type. 


Marianne Dashwood

The spirited second daughter of Mr and Mrs Dashwood provides the title “Sensibility” in opposition to her sister’s “sense”. This sensibility encompasses Marianne’s sense of spontaneity, enthusiasm and romantic idealism. Though Marianne’s impulsive actions make her a sympathetic character they lead her to a broken heart. When Marianne’s reckless enthusiasm is juxtaposed with her sister’s measured propriety we can see that both passion and composure are needed in the workplace. While it’s important to follow our intuition, it’s also necessary to make rational decisions. 



Jane Austen is lauded for her dynamic portrayal of women and her characters remain role-models for generation after generation of young women. Yet her ironic style draws meaning from both the character’s flaws as well as their virtues. Whether we are in search of Mr. Darcy or a promotion, perhaps that is the greatest lesson that we can take from her literature: there is always a need for self-improvement.


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