by Simon Bosch

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Lessons in love .... read classic fiction. Photo: Simon Bosch

For a woman who spent her life happily unmarried and, in all likelihood, never had a great romance, Jane Austen sure knew a lot about relationships and desire. The fictional heroes of her imagination, conjured 200-odd years ago, embodied everything considered gallant and charming in 19th-century England. Readers have been lusting after Mr Darcy and co. since.

How, then, to nab a man of such a calibre? In Austen's world, coquettish simpering ladies never seemed to have the knack. Instead, only clever women eventually figured it out.

Modern women would do well to heed such advice, says journalist Amanda Hooton, the author of the literary relationship self-help book Finding Mr Darcy. ''[Austen] does believe in true love, but she's also a pragmatist,'' she says. ''She's not in favour of hanging around 'alone and palely loitering' … she's a believer in approaching life and love with a sense of humour, and she's a believer in people talking to each other.''

Heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Emma Woodhouse (Emma) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) never hide their intelligence. They spar with their partners, speak seriously and value intellectual conversation.

And rather than pursuing a mate for financial stability alone, many characters find their kindred spirit in a ''quiet clergy man''.

''They aren't most people's ideas of a roaring good time, but the heroines fall genuinely in love with them and have a connection with them,'' Hooton says.

But Austen is not the only source of such wisdom. The US authors of another book, Much ado About Loving, believe literature is packed with all sorts of insights into relationships. From sex advice in Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence to the soft side of the macho male in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, the great novels teach much about dating, modern love and ''not-so-great Gatsbys''.

The idea for the book was sparked by writer Maura Kelly's frequent calls on her friend Jack Murnighan for relationship advice. ''On many occasions he would say, 'Maura, you really need to read this book - this classic novel will provide all the answers for you','' Kelly says.

Mystified by the way some women seemed to effortlessly charm those around them, for example, Kelly followed Murnighan's suggestion: ''Jack said, 'If you just read War and Peace [by Leo Tolstoy] you'll figure it all out'.''

Men, too, can learn from literature. In a chapter dedicated to David Foster Wallace's famously wordy tome Infinite Jest, Murnighan likens the author to a man on his first date.

''He's lonely, insecure, nervous, jumpy … in dire need of affirmation, but proud of certain parts of himself and desperate to show those to you [his date],'' Murnighan writes. ''So, he talks. And talks. And talks.''

Sydney author Linda Jaivin accidentally discovered the titillating powers of literature. Before writing her erotic novel Eat Me, first published in 1995 and re-released in November, she specialised in meticulously researched, yet poorly paid articles on Chinese affairs. On a whim, Jaivin decided to have a go at writing an erotic short story, which a friend encouraged her to send into a magazine.

''I did and a cheque came back for $2000,'' she says. ''I saw the future. It was that story that led to my writing Eat Me.''

Through the years, Jaivin has noticed many great novels contain pithy insights into love and romance. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, shows ''obsession can land you in deep water''. The lesson from Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert: ''Girls, you be the doctor. Then you can afford all the beautiful clothes, luxurious curtains and handsome cads your heart desires.''

And Anna Karenina? ''Don't throw yourself under a train. No man is worth it. It's a dumb way to die.''