Jane Austen, Mother of Romance
There were romances before Jane Austen. By which I don’t mean what was called Romance in her day, but what is called Romance now: a plot circling around romantic love.
Heck, Romeo and Juliet is a romance, and for Portugal it has a very Happy Ever After. Never mind. Cultural differences.
But the romances of her time tended to the overblown and a little crazy, more “soap opera” like than even our current ones. (BTW there must be something to the human mind that likes characters coming back to life, convoluted ah… genetic situations, etc. because they show up so often in the Greek Myths which were the first fan-written soap opera. Well, fan told. Whatever. That’s a side spur.)
I find it interesting that in modern romances, even the regencies, even retellings of Price and Prejudice (Amazon is full of them, fanfic, and fetching pretty good prices, too. Look up Price and Prejudice Variations or Sequels. No, I won’t promise NOT to write them) in which anyone who stands between the lovers must be an awful guy, like murder awful.
For Jane Austen, villains were more… familial villains. People so selfish and self-centered or so immoral and vengeful that they destroy the lives of those they touch, which has nothing to do with actual crime.
But hey, I enjoy those too, just not as much as Pride and Prejudice, which is arguably Jane Austen’s best known/appreciated work.
I actually like Persuasion better, because it’s the sort of thing I might have fallen into when I was young.
However, all of Jane Austen’s novels are precisely “characters realize their flaws that are preventing them from happiness and get over them.”
They’re also, weirdly, not particularly romantic in the sense of pink covers and flutter-perfume. Every time I hear a guy — or a girl, but it’s usually a guy — talk about how they don’t read “that trash” referring to Austen I know they’ve either watched the REALLY BAD movie where P & P was set in Texas and was all about “Lurve” or the even more attrocious recent movie. Let’s just say the “we’re all fools in love” final line would make Miss Austen twirl in her grave fast enough to generate electricity.
What you have to remember about Austen’s romances is that at the time of the regency marriage was SERIOUS business. All classes, really. There is a reason merchants usually married merchant daughters, and Lady Catherine wasn’t actually wrong in telling Elizabeth Bennett that she shouldn’t wish to quit the sphere in which she was raised. Knowing a bit more about Regency England, she was more or less setup to be eaten alive by Fashionable London TM after her marriage.
But all her heroines have some incentive to get married that have nothing to do with “lurv”. In P & P it’s the fact that they’ll be broke if at least one of the five daughters doesn’t marry very well indeed. In Persuasion it’s getting away from her horrible relatives. In Emma it’s that she’ll never grow up otherwise, and end up like her father (which becomes obvious.)
These are real world problems and to escape them, the protagonists need to be rational and act within strict rules. Not our rules, but strict rules nonetheless.
Heyer, btw, does much the same as Austen, but more in the fashionable world, and a higher class. It’s the people and their interaction that matter, and though some of the books — groan Cousin Kate — tend to the Gothic Romance, most just deal with ordinary people and ordinary problems, and yes, love, but love in the context of the rest of life, and of someone who will be a “help meet” and a friend, as well as a lover.
In a way, Jane Austen started the romance, because she shifted the focus from “out and doing” to the interior “connecting and being.” (IMHO you need both for a decent book, and even her books have some action.) Heyer, writing for a more modern audience, added more action (and in The Toll Gate a bit of mystery.)
New York publishers don’t seem to understand this. At some point one or more of them heard about “porn for women” and took it literally, so there is a strong emphasis on graphically described sex, and less on the emotions. And since at one point every one of their heroines was either a suffragette or ran a shelter for abused women, and people got tired of that, they added more sex to bring people in.
It does bring people in, just IMHO again, a fraction of the ones that could come in if the focus (sex or not, though 0 to anal in three pages in a regency is a bit much) were more on emotions and relationships and less on sex.
I don’t precisely have anything against sex in books. I mean, I don’t seek it out, but I also don’t think it should never ever ever be there. I just think if it’s there it should advance the plot and mean something for the characters and their future development.
I’m as capable as the next woman of imagining breasts being fondled or other stuff, and my imagination is better, thank you. Reading it just mostly bores me.
And as a lot indies are proving, you don’t need sex, particularly in a regency. You need what Austen had, to sell. You need interpersonal relationships and people to flawed to reach for the brass ring. You need the process by which they become worthy of each other, and functional adults. And even people who have atrocious grammar are doing pretty well at that.
So, next up: Regency Romances.