*clap, clap, clap*
Austen and the Romance Novel
by Sharon Lathan
For all that some refuse to label Jane Austen’s novels as “romance” (and indeed they are more than simply that) there is no doubt that finding one’s “true love” was a large part of the plot line. Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland, Emma Woodhouse, the Dashwood sisters, and Fanny Price ended their respective novels with mates perfect for a host of reasons, but with love a prime factor.
Was Austen writing of a popular notion for the era?
Historically in England, once out in Society a woman had one duty to fulfill: Find a suitable match. By “suitable” the objective was not a man who one loved but one who possessed wealth and rank. A woman who did not secure a good marriage would forever be reliant upon her family or the charity of others to survive. While this may have worked out well for some, in general marriage was the only hope, thus requiring her to make a very wise choice.
This concept is foreign to us yet for the lady of the past it was the way of things. Most women of the gentry class or aristocracy gave scant consideration to choosing out of deep passion. Of course, women are by nature sensitive creatures so emotions often got in the way! Hence the “wisdom” of allowing rational parents to become involved, the daughter knowing that her future security was at stake and thus trusting that a potential husband’s pedigree and wealth was thoroughly examined before he was offered. Indeed this was the whole point of staying within the ton and meeting at places like Almack’s Assembly where only those who were of the best quality and had passed inspection hung out!
Yet by the 18th century the idea of marrying with love as an incentive was gaining ground. Both males and females were deciding that this could add to the union in a positive way. Go figure! However, while this notion advanced and was desirable, practicality did not quickly disappear. Parental approval was necessary for the woman under 21 to marry and although a man certainly had greater freedom in his choices, he too may be beholden to a parent’s pocketbook or Society’s favor. Dashing off to Gretna Green solved the problem of marrying without approval but in most cases only led to worse complications.
By the way, Gretna Green was not the Las Vegas of historic Britain! It was simply the first town over the Scotland border. Scotland and England were not united at this time and did not share the same laws, so a marriage could be conducted anywhere in Scotland without parental consent or proper reading of the banns.
The Regency was an era of high romanticism to be sure, but it followed closely on the heels of the previous eras where ideals were quite different. Strict rules of conduct between the sexes were rigidly enforced in large part because of the rise in romantic sensibilities. You see this in the response of Mrs. Bennet to Lizzy refusing Mr. Collins. To her mother, a woman from the previous generation, marriage to a man with a career and who was heir to Longbourn was far more valuable then waiting for love or passion as a deciding factor. Conversely the effect upon the family by Lydia’s actions (if Mr. Darcy had not saved the day) reveal the penalty for behaving with passionate emotions reigning.
Thus the answer to my question - Was Austen writing of a popular notion for the era? - is yes. However, in each of her novels she tempered the belief in marrying for great love and passion with pragmatism. Each of her heroines married men out of love but they were also well established or as in the case of Mr. Darcy fabulously rich!
That definitely sounds like a romance novel to me! What do you think? And of the Austen lovers, which couple is your favorite and why?
Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga seven volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Sharon began writing in 2005 and her first
novel, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One was published by
Sourcebooks Landmark in 2009. Her eighth novel will be released in April 2013, The Passions of Dr. Darcy an epic tale of an English physician in Georgian Era India.