College Reunions and Jane Austen's Emma - Lessons in Friendship

November 30, 2017
College Reunions and Jane Austen's Emma - Lessons in Friendship
Lemon, Ginger, & Echinacea TeaNiandou by Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal

Dear Erica,

I’ve just spent time with an old college friend at a reunion weekend and we just didn’t connect in the way we once did.  It’s so sad.  We used to be really close but we just don’t have much in common anymore.  Why is that?

Sad at Stanford

Dear Sad at Stanford,

I can imagine why you find it sad that you and your old friend are not as close as you once were.  It is common for our old friendships to falter as life gets in the way and we evolve and change.   As Somerset Maugham wrote, “It's no good trying to keep up old friendships. It's painful for both sides. The fact is, one grows out of people, and the only thing is to face it.”  I know this sounds harsh, but it’s possible that your friendship with this old college friend was more surface-level, brought about by circumstance, and as such unable to stand the test of time.

In Jane Austen’s Emma, we see the heroine, Emma, having the same problem with her friend Harriet Smith.  They develop a friendship quickly and easily but it it is never more than surface-level and the ups and downs of their love-life draws them apart.

As Austen writes, “Harriet, necessarily drawn away by her engagements with the Martins, was less and less at Hartfield; which was not to be regretted.--The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill; and, fortunately, what ought to be, and must be, seemed already beginning, and in the most gradual, natural Manner.”

In the same way that you and your friend were brought together by college, Harriet and Emma are thrown together because they are of a similar age, live in the same village, and Emma’s best friend/old governess has gotten married and is no longer around.   In other circumstances, they might not have been drawn to each other as they didn’t have that much in common, but they were both lonely and needed a friend.

With a really deep and long-lasting friendship, one would hope that distance and time apart would have less impact.  In the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry become “bosom friends” as children, and their bond manages to withstand personal hardship, marriages, and long separations.  But those “bosom friends” are few and far between.  And in many cases, we do “grow out of people” and as Somerset Maugham writes, “the only thing is to face it.”