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.



38 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Mother of Romance

  1. Now THIS breakdown I can understand. Think I may have to add P&P to my reading list just for the hell of it.

      1. Gentle?

        Well, okay, perhaps by modern standards the snark was gentle. But when I read Pride and Prejudice, I always come across bits that think, “I don’t live in that culture so I don’t actually know whom that was aimed at, but that must have left quite a mark!”

        1. Heh, that final letter from Mr. Darcy to Mr. Collins, following Darcy & Elizabeth’s wedding, I will concede was a *massive* burn. I laughed out loud at it.

          (To paraphrase: Collins wrote a letter to Darcy chastising him for going against his aunt’s wishes and marrying Elizabeth. Darcy responded with a pointed reminder that Darcy has a LOT more money than Lady Catherine, and Collins might want to keep that little fact in mind…)

  2. “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.”

    For an example, try THE BRIDE OF NEWGATE, a Regency Romance/Mystery by John Dickson Carr. Fashionable London(tm) did its best to destroy the protagonist, and failed only because he didn’t give a d*** about London or Fashion. At the end he retired to his estate in Kent* and let Fashionable London(tm) go to Hell.

    *(with his wife, an exemplar of Proper London Society(tm) who was by then as sick of it as he was)

    1. Anyone in their right mind would quickly reach that point with Fashionable London. Middle School Mean Girls plus the chance your father /brother /husband would gamble away your home and leave you destitute would drive me insane.

  3. Shojo manga does that for me – emotional connections, small interactions between the two that help love grow, or make the loved one more precious, with flawed characters trying to overcome their flaws (Hibi Chouchou) or problems (Love So Life, or Gakuen Babysitters.)

    Then there’s things like Your Lie In April – romance and classical music! Bring a box of tissues.

    1. Watching Vision of Escaflowne recently, I was struck how well it balanced the romance and action. It (so far) hasn’t descended into soap opera silliness despite having a love polygon at its heart.

      1. I don’t think it ever goes into soap opera, really; if it does, it’s the focus of an episode, or two, then moves on. (Which is the average for a shojo manga, even then. The story’s usually moving forward with it’s subplots.)

        I’m really sad the group that was scanlating Glass Mask stopped two years ago. It looked like the story was going to the climax.

    2. Slight tangent, do you have any recommendations (preferably available in English since I don’t speak Japanese, Korean (sadly), or Chinese) for well more ‘serious’ action oriented manga? I have an idea that won’t leave me alone, and since it hasn’t gone away after um… four years? I figure I better do something with it. But I’m not to sure about the pacing. Most of the things (such as Full Metal Alchemist) that friends have recommended, tend to have their ‘humor breaks’ a bit far out into the ridiculous for me. So something with more subtle humor would be appreciated.

      1. Ouroburos. Maybe Jackals, maybe Jormungand. 3×3 Eyes. Ajin. Project Arms. Maybe Spriggan, maybe Verdant Lord. Maybe Arachnid. Gunslinger Girls. Maybe Birdy the Mighty. Blade of the Immortal. Lone Wolf and Cub. Fist of the North Star. Elfenlied and Brynhildr (same author). Kamisama Dolls maybe. Higanjima. Ubel Blatt (fair amount of explicit sex), Teppu, Until Death Does Us Part, Otogi Matsuri. Maybe Gantz or Inuyashiki. Maybe Killing Bites.

        Korean, Breakers. Veritas. City of Dead Sorcerer.

        Chinese: Blood and Steel, IIRC City of Darkness, there was a pretty nice Fen Shi Ji (sp?)

        Some are legally available in English, others have been scanlated.

      2. Scanlations work if the manga isn’t available in English. Bob’s given a really good list, so I’ll tack one the ones I don’t see there.

        I hear All You Need Is Kill is good.
        There’s Attack On Titan, BTOOM, (warnings for lots of bloodshed for the above) Goblin Slayer … uhm, given how it’s presented, I’m somewhat tempted to add Food Wars!/Shokugeki no Soma to the list, simply because the pacing is probably what you’re looking for, despite it being a cooking battle manga.

        There’s Mahou Sensei Negima (which is Ken Akamatsu’s famous rebellion against the Publisher Expectations, which is apparently well researched for a shonen manga that he had to start as a harem manga) followed by the more serious UQ Holder (comic nudity happens, so you’re forewarned.) Sword Art Online; Black Butler (there’s enough fight scenes for me to count that as one, personally), Seirei no Moribito, Akagami no Shirayukihime (so I hear, haven’t gotten to read it yet), Magi (I keep getting it recommended), Sousei no Onmyouji (aka Twin Star Exorcists), Seraph of the End / Owari no Seraph, Death March To Another World, Vinland Saga. Despite the ecchi nature of the art, I’d still reccommend Dance in the Vampire Bund, because it’s still action oriented, and all considered, fairly grim.

        Korean manwha is something I don’t often read, but there was one that I did – Household Affairs, which starts out as smut then mutates into action WITH smut. (It’s finished too.)

        1. Magi is perhaps more of a Shonen series, so I’m not sure about the humor. What I’ve read of it is pretty good. Can be pretty grim and dark.

        2. All You Need is Kill is the manga that Edge of Tomorrow (the movie) was based on. They apparently hewed decently close to the concept while making the ending a little more friendly to western audiences.

  4. That–where all the characters seem to be doing their best to ruin everything, and not just for our heroes but *everything*, but not by actually trying but just by being themselves and blind to it… it really was my favorite part of Pride and Prejudice. (Haven’t read any other Austen yet.) Heh… I actually saw a lot of myself in Mary, if I’m recalling the names right…

  5. The anonymous author of Fatherless Fanny is somewhere in the same headspace as Austen and Heyer, but she also grabs onto Gothic romance and Ithe Castle Rackrent sort of Irish romance-satire-journalism.

    All in the same book. (You have to make sure you get the online digitized edition that has all the Irish material though, instead of the one that just goes “here is a brief plot summary and oh, the book’s over.”)

    Thackeray spent time in Vanity Fair to insult Fatherless Fanny specifically, so I figured it had to be good. And actually, Vanity Fair is partly a parody of Fatherless Fanny, and partly stealing from it. (Same thing with A Little Princess; except that it is an attempt at improving on FF, which Burnett’s mom retold as a bedtime story.)

      1. Heh, which one?

        I just tried to rewatch the 1995 rendition of it, and have found it appalling. I don’t know if it’s simply because the acting is overall so terrible, or if because the virtues that made Sara truly awesome in the book just come across as “sickeningly saccharine and false” in a visual medium, but…ick.

        (I couldn’t even watch five minutes of the Shirley Temple one.)

  6. Long-time lurker here but I just have to comment to thank Sarah for this entry on Austen. After her post about romances I was primed to write an epic Lileks-type screed about Austen & the Romance genre. Now I only have to write a short amplification about her.
    While Jane Austen is the god-mother of Romance, Sarah is right to say she didn’t write romances. (Which is why I like her even though the Romance genre leaves me cold.) She wrote stories about the people in the world she lived in that we moderns interpret as romance. Sarah mentioned marriage as being Serious Business but didn’t explain why, so let me.
    In the world before the modern welfare state, who you married (& if you were able to marry) was the most important decision you made in your life – because your family was the only safety net you had. Austen’s books are about the trade-offs people make when choosing a marriage partner & the consequences of the choices her characters make. That’s why she didn’t have the typical bad-guy villains you might see in modern romances.
    For someone like Jane Austen herself (minor gentry, not enough assets to support a lot of unmarried daughters or younger sons) a woman who didn’t marry well (I’ll define that in a minute) would end up as a poor-relation spinster aunt making herself useful to the extended family who end up having to support her (what’s really going on in the background of Persuasion).
    Marrying well in Austen’s world started with a man you could love & respect but he’d also better have the assets to support a wife & children (also a theme in Persuasion). And just as importantly, be of good character – as in being a stand-up responsible guy who isn’t going to waste the family assets by gambling, drinking & whoring (1776 shout-out). Marry the wrong sort of man & you could end up as a poor widow in your old age or deserted wife with children to feed somehow.
    I could write some things about how marriage choices affected men in Austen’s world but this is too long now. I’ll just end by saying when you read Austen pay attention to how all her characters try to balance between love/romance & the practical side of marriage. You’ll see her make frequent authorial comments about her characters – which is why you won’t get the real Austen from watching movies or mini-series of her books. Sorry this isn’t short like I promised but sometimes I get all wound up.

    1. The A & E mini-series is pretty good on the background, if you pay attention.
      Well, I didn’t explain/delve into this stuff because my posts are long as is. BUT the reason Austen appeals to me (and to an extent Heyer who has some of this) is that marriage is STILL serious business, if you intend to stay married and not fall into the welfare roles. So I find the “marry because the sex is amazing” bs in most contemporary-written romances annoying.

      1. Ugh, yes. One of the few modern romance writers (who writes sort-of historicals) I’ll actually read and like these days (because historical romances have also been horribly infected by ‘love = amazing sex and no other considerations’ virus), none of her characters have a magical penis or vagina that magically solves all their life/relationship problems. They still have to work things out like actual people. (There’s still rather too much of good relationship = amazing sex and no other considerations, but it’s a far sight better than most of the others…) All the men are still conveniently economically secure, though…though refreshingly, they aren’t all nobility, and there’s a set of this particular author’s books where the male characters (who are all siblings) WERE part of a family where they had been cut off by wealthier relatives…and very nearly starved to death, and a couple of the brothers even ended up on the streets.

        So at least there’s one author out there in the genre who, while still shoehorning in sex scenes prior to matrimony (annoying, outside of the case where the heroine was a courtesan and–for a change, the hero was a virgin), at least is aware that things like starving to death, etc were very real dangers well into the Victorian era and writes accordingly.

  7. (Three days later, he comments)

    There is no such thing as a ‘help meet.’
    It’s an artifact of the King James Version of the Bible, in which the word ‘meet’ meant the same thing as ‘suitable, appropriate.’ It’s also found in the liturgical phrase:
    C: ‘Let us give thanks to God.’
    R: ‘It is meet and right to do.’
    C: ‘It is truly meet, right, and salutary…’

    When nomads roamed the Wild West and encountered buffalo, they were unable to bring their religious language into alignment with their daily language, and decided that ‘meet’ sounded a lot like ‘mate,’ and that a ‘help-mate’ was a good thing to have, or if it wasn’t, it should be.
    And so, one quiet evening, near the present site of Duluth, Montana, just before Vespers, when the skies had not been cloudy all day, Shaman Clarence Alabama pronounced that he was a’gonna get him a help-meet before the next die was cast.

    And this is true, even to the present day.

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