Lucinda Elliot

Jane Austen: A Writer of Romances?

220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12snsbrockwc9In my last post on Jane Austen, I commented that: –

‘It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.’

Really, I should have expanded on this; the comment on it from Steph Rozitis sums up this view tersely: –

‘I think seeing Austen as a writer of “romance” genre is more than ironic- it’s inaccurate and does the writer a huge disservice. As you know she is one of the reputable writers trotted out by romance apologists. I don’t think her agenda is “boy meets girl” it’s more social critique and showing the places of (relatively privileged) women. Marriage is a huge part of that because those women have few options available to them but the interactions and character flaws are what makes the books readable and rereadable …’

Sadly, I have to concede that the writers on romance today who are eager to secure an intellectual and literary respectability for the romance genre by claiming that classic writers of the past were in fact, writers of ‘romance’  – Pamela Regis is one – are arguably mistaken in Jane Austen’s case (many would argue that they are wrong about Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’, Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’, and various others too; but that is irrelevant here).Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_Harlowe

As the poster comments, in assuming that because Jane Austen wrote about women finding marriage partners in the late Georgian and Regency era she was committed to modern notions of ‘romance’ , many modern proponents of the Jane Austen as writer of romance argument are underestimating the circumstances in which this most astute of social commentators wrote.

In her era, women from the upper middle class were obliged not to work except, as a last resort, as a governess or a companion. For them to work outside the home was seen as a disgrace on the male members of their family, who should in all honour support them if they did not find a marriage partner. If these women were not sufficiently blasé about social disgrace to become a form of prostitute, therefore, their only other option generally was marriage as the only respectable way to achieve some status in a household of their own.sensens2

Jane Austen’s stories, therefore, are arguably not romantic novels, but ones which give a social critique through telling a story of a young woman adapting to her environment and the compromises which she must make to function smoothly in it, of which a marriage which will be happy is part of the comedic outcome.

The story of Marianne, for instance, is in fact as strong a criticism of taking ‘romantic’ notions into marriage as I can imagine. This is, of course, a criticism of ‘the romantic’ in the terms in which it was understood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which included the free and frank expression of the dramatic and the emotional in art and literature.snsbrockwc14

‘Romantic love’ was a component of this approach, but only a part of it; the modern concept of ‘romance’ is then, unfortunately, a sentimentalised version of a whole approach to life.

Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughy is only partly sentimentalized sexuality in the manner of current definitions of ‘the romantic’. It is also a striving to find another free and fiercely honest spirit in a world where she considers that almost everybody, including her beloved sister, is addicted to compromise in order for polite society to operate smoothly.

I have mentioned before that I do not particularly enjoy Jane Austen’s solution to Marianne’s disillusion with romanticism and her acceptance of the need for compromise in personal and social relations; her taking the sedate Colonel Brandon for a life partner was to me a disappointing ending to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, I would rather that Marianne had married a repentant (and partially reformed) Willoughby, and became, as she must, slowly disillusioned with him, though no doubt remaining attached to him. That sort of conditional happy-ever-after suits me perfectly for a dose of realism.

Jane Austen, however, clearly considered that such a match would have led to more unhappiness for Marianne than she would have experienced in a rather passionless match with the excellent Colonel. How anyone can regard that outcome as in any way romantic puzzles me. I found it frankly disturbing, because – surely unintentionally – Marianne Dashwood comes across as Jane Austen’s most potentially sexual secondary heroine.

In that, then, Jane Austen designs her plot in a way quite contrary to those of the typical romantic novel.

Any regulars I might have might remember that this question also arises in ‘Mansfield Park’ where Jane Austen demonstrates Fanny Price obdurate against a charming and unprincipled Henry Crawford who finally disgraces himself, as does his sister, Mary, with whom Fanny’s true love and cousin is infatuated; Fanny then goes on to marry the steady rather than the beguiling man. And like Cassandra Austen, I was dissatisfied at the tameness of the particular happy ending that the writer chose.

Obviously, then, if these two examples are anything to go by, I am affected myself by current romantic notions in a way that Jane Austen clearly was not. However,  as above, I would go for the ‘qualified happy ending’ rather than the supremely happy one.

Even in ‘Pride and Predjudice’, generally seen as the most romantic of Jane Austen’s novels, with Mr Darcy extolled as the most desirable of tall, dark, dashing heroes, it might be noted that the narrator remarks that the development of Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings for him are not the ones associated with romantic infatuation: –

‘If gratitude and esteem are good foundations for affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But otherwise, – if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable and unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged – nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment’.

One of the many things that differentiates Jane Austen’s writing from the rigid requirements of romantic fiction is her interest in social relations; a good deal of the space in her works is taken up, not by dwelling on the developing passions of the main couple, but by engaging in satirical wit at the expense of snobs and fools. By contrast, sadly, when I last read the guidelines of Mills and Boon, it was emphasized that while a sub plot is permitted some space, the main emphasis must always be on the primary relationship between heroine and hero.

It is ironic that with so many opportunities open to women which were not remotely possible in Jane Austen’s day, the most popular form of fiction amongst women today is one that concentrates mainly on finding life partners.

The question is why; men also  – at least past a certain age – want life partners, but only a tiny minority of them are interested in reading novels about it.  What makes for this difference in favoured reading?


2 Responses

  1. I have to agree with you, and enjoy the way you break it down (including the questions around why the modern reader may prefer Willoughby to Brandon)

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