The outbreak of new Jane Austen adaptations on Masterpiece Classic has made me contemplate her body of work as a whole. I felt a general distaste (amounting sometimes to severe frustration) for the adaptations, but I also felt that I needed reasons to back up my opinions. My reflections on this topic broadened when I realized that, as products of contemporary society, the new adaptations reflected modern ideas not only about Jane Austen’s work, but about life and romance in general.
So what does modern society say about romance? Romance is stars and butterflies, a kind of fluttery feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is unreasoning and inescapable (in a fatalistic sort of way). True romance is finding your “soul-mate.” A soul-mate is a nebulous concept, but it usually refers to someone who makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. If these starry-eyed emotions disappear, it means that you are no longer in love.
Good reasons to leave a relationship include:
A) not “getting anything” out of your current relationship
B) finding someone who is better-looking
C) finding someone who produces stronger fluttery feelings in the area around your liver (or is it your small intestine?)
D) finding someone who is more romantic
E) finding someone who has better taste in jewelry
F) all of the above.
Hollywood mass produces these ideas in every possible shape and form and feeds them to hordes of movie-goers every year. This over-emphasis on romantic feelings has done little for our society except cause dissatisfaction in singles – not to mention those who are married and past the “fluttery” stage of their relationships.
But what does Jane Austen have to say about love in her novels? As I started thinking about her novels, I realized that there is hardly an ounce of what people today call romance. Wait a minute! Pride and Prejudice is the most romantic book of all time! Isn’t it?
First I think it’s important to look at each hero and heroine, analyzing their feelings and their reasons for marriage. Since Pride and Prejudice is the most famous, it’s a good place to start.
Pride and Prejudice
Mr. Darcy: Admittedly, Mr. Darcy has some elements of romance in his nature. He overcomes family pride, financial considerations, and what he considers “prudence” in asking Elizabeth Bennett to marry him. Surely this would seem to involve the “unreasoning” aspect of romance. But why has he asked Lizzie to marry him? There are plenty of eligible young women throwing themselves at his head (most notably, Miss Bingley). However, he is drawn to Lizzie because of her wit, intelligence, and good sense. True, she is pretty. But if looks were the deciding factor in his affection, he might easily have chosen another woman. By the time he proposes for the second time, his respect for Lizzie has only grown (his deflated vanity helps, too). He would never have overcome his scruples about marrying her if he had thought her unworthy of his love. In other words, he respects her.
Lizzie: Why does Elizabeth Bennett change her mind and decide to marry Mr. Darcy? Because she finally understands and respects his character. She cannot be said to base her decision on looks, wealth, or position – he offered them to her once without avail. It would be equally ridiculous to say that she just “falls in love” with him or “can’t resist” him. No, Lizzie marries Mr. Darcy when she is sure that he is a man of strong principle, a man that she can respect. Lizzie does dabble in a “romantic” relationship with Wickham, but Jane Austen shows this as a disaster of poor judgment (combined with Wickham’s deceit) rather than a romantic triumph. Lizzie’s ultimate choice is based on respect.
Sense and Sensibility
Edward and Elinor: This can hardly be said to be a “romantic” relationship in the modern sense of the word. Both Edward and Elinor are quiet, unassuming people without great personal beauty or charm. They are attractive to each other because their minds are similar, but they do not hold great attractions for the rest of the world. Edward rashly engaged himself to Lucy Steele in his youth, an imprudent romance that threatens his happiness. However, both he and Elinor would prefer his honorable union to Lucy to a dishonorable breach of contract so that they could marry each other. Even their love and respect for each other is limited by the demands of honor and virtue. Of course, this assumes that engagements were serious and binding – a concept that is foreign in today’s world. What is the result of this unpromising union? They settle down comfortably at a small parish and live out the remainder of their life together. Here is what Jane Austen herself records about his proposal to Elinor:
“When they all sat down to table at four o’clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother’s consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men.” – Chapter 49
Note the words “reason” and “truth.” While Jane Austen does not pretend that Edward does not feel any emotion, his romantic choice is no mere whim. After their marriage, Edward and Elinor receive a visit from Mrs. Jennings, who:
“found in Elinor and her husband, as she really believed, one of the happiest couple in the world. They had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.” – Chapter 50
Is better pasturage for cows a subject which makes the heart flutter? Not the Hollywood version of it, certainly, but it is the type of romance which will last them for the rest of their lives: mutual affection and respect, coupled with common interests and pursuits.
Marianne and Colonel Brandon: A girl of seventeen marrying a man of thirty-six is hardly romantic by modern standards. It is even questionable whether Colonel Brandon really loves Marianne for herself, or because she reminds him so strongly of his dear Eliza. Marianne accepts Colonel Brandon’s attentions – formerly rejected because of his “advanced years” and general lack of dash and swagger – after she’s reduced by illness and on the rebound from a prolonged and painful romance with Willoughby. In Chapter 50, Jane writes of Marianne’s decision to marry and Colonel Brandon’s flannel waistcoat in the same paragraph. So are they doomed to a life of unhappiness and regrets? Hardly. Their mutual respect gradually grows into a deeper affection that will endure the test of time. As Jane Austen records, Marianne had the type of disposition which ultimately led to her falling very much in love with her husband.
Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot: Persuasion has more to say about constancy of affection than the forming of it. But returning after eight years with some bitterness still lingering in his heart, Captain Wentworth prefers the faded, sensible, and truly good woman he once loved to Louisa Musgrove’s beauty, youth, and exuberance. If he had based his decision on any of the things that Hollywood considers important, Louisa would have been his choice. But it is Anne who is suited to his temperament, and it is Anne who has earned his respect. Louisa is a flighty young girl who is headstrong in her behavior, while Anne is a mature woman who puts others before herself and thinks and feels deeply. Captain Wentworth has the wisdom to see this, even though he is hampered by bitterness early in the novel. Anne, likewise, never wavers in her affection. Captain Benwick, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by emotion – and then marries a year after the death of his “beloved” Phoebe. Persuasion is a powerful reminder that true affection is often a quiet, gentle emotion.
Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price: I am convinced that one of the reasons most people do not like Mansfield Park is that the ending is impossibly unromantic. Edmund spends the first few hundred pages of the book throwing away his affection on a woman who is utterly unworthy of it, and then transfers his affection to his cousin once he realizes his mistake. But what if we evaluate the novel by modern standards? If he truly was in love with Mary Crawford, certainly she was his soul-mate, right? The problem is that he never was in love with Mary Crawford. He was in love with an idea of her that he had created himself. He attributed Fanny’s sweetness, goodness, and piety to Mary’s pretty face and clever mind. Ultimately, he chooses goodness over beauty and wit. Once more, Jane Austen shows that inclination – “infatuation,” as she calls it in Chapter 48 – is never enough to base a marriage on. To marry Mary, Edmund would have had to deny the very principles that made him who he was. Fanny is the woman who complements his temperament and encourages him to follow good principles. So what happens when two people mutually in love marry and settle down? Jane Austen tells us:
“With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune and friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.—Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.”
Stars and butterflies? No. Genuine, lasting happiness? Yes.
Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland: Northanger Abbey is written as a satire, and as such it does not conform to the conventions of most novels. It is probably the least “romantic” of all of Jane Austen’s books, but it is simultaneously one of the most delightful. In her witty way, Jane Austen explains Henry’s attachment to Catherine:
“Though Henry was now sincerely attached to her—though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character, and truly loved her society—I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”
Jane Austen knew full well that it is not a new circumstance in common life, whatever is written in novels. Henry and Catherine are consigned to a happy, ordinary life. They respect each other and get along well, and Jane Austen considers this as good a reason as any for them to live happily – indeed, a better reason! Theirs was not blind infatuation, but the reasoned affection that is based on knowledge of character and affinity of temperament.
Mr. Knightley and Emma Woodhouse: What is there left to be said? Emma marries a man that she respects and honors, a man whom she has looked up to as long as she can remember. Mr. Knightley marries a woman that he has known since her infancy, a woman who – though not perfect – is perfectly suited to be his wife. They are comfortable with one another; there is no awkwardness and no pretence to mar their happiness. Mr. Knightley knows the worst of Emma, and loves her still because he also knows the best of her. Emma can trust Mr. Knightley to guide her and care for her – and she desperately needs someone to guide her willful temper. She owes her “reformation” to his interest in her welfare.
So does Jane Austen does write romances? Yes! They do not fit into modern guidelines, but they are romances of the truest and best sort. The only characters in Austen novels who base their romantic decisions on their “emotions” end up unhappy (at least temporarily), or even in disgrace: Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram, Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford, Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby, Lizzie Bennett and George Wickham, Lydia Bennett and George Wickham, Isabella Thorpe and James Morland, Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele, and others.
The thread running through each of Jane’s novels is the theme of respect. It is not enough to be pretty, or charming, or wealthy, or agreeable. There must be goodness, good sense (though slips of judgment are inevitable), and character. That is the foundation of each successful romance in her novels, and it is the foundation of successful romances in real life, as well.
Hollywood tries to change this because it doesn’t think that anything other than a full-blown romance will sell. Hence, the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice implies that there is some mystical attraction between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie, an attraction that is resisted in vain by both parties. They marry because “they can’t live without each other.” All I have to say to that is “Hogwash!” Jane Austen never indulged in such fatalistic flights of fancy. She knew that love was much more than an emotion, and that “romance” was not guaranteed to last.
It irks me to no end when I hear people call Jane Austen’s novels “romances,” or worse, “chic flicks!” Jane Austen wrote about life, and romance is a part of life. But if her novels were only concerned with the fluttering emotions of young lovers, they would never have stood the test of time. Instead, the prosaic romances of Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood have continued to delight readers throughout the centuries that followed their creation. They are timeless because they are real, and because the men they love are real. They are timeless because Jane Austen understood love, and, more importantly, understood human nature.