Friday, April 13, 2018

Jane Austen: Notes on the Love Romance

Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the template for love romance novels. The setting doesn't matter. It's the social difference between her and him that's at the core of love romance: She's much too good for him even though He's (usually) a higher class (eg, the CEO/Owner of the company, and she's just a file clerk). He has to prove that he's worthy of her. Austen's book is better than most romances because she has to prove she's worthy of him, too. Not that there’s much doubt about that. Lizzie is intelligent, strong-willed, and unwilling to settle for second best. And she has a fine pair of eyes.

Of course Lizzie is worthy of Darcy, who in the end shows that he is an honourable man. It was that over-nice sense of honour that prevented him from supporting Bingley’s courtship of Jane, and worse, rendered him unwilling to reveal the true nature of Wickham. Darcy makes amends for the damage he has caused; he intervenes in the Wickham-Lydia affair. Lizzie is certain that her sister’s missteps have made herself unmarriageable, but Darcy does the honourable thing: He follows his heart and his mind, both of which assure him that Lizzie is a fit mate for him, and the censure of society is at most an inconvenience. He saves the Bennett family from social ruin at the risk of losing some of his acquaintanceship. Dorothy Sayers gives us another couple in which the man saves the woman. It takes three novels for Harriet Vane to overcome her fear that her attraction to Lord Peter Wimsey is contaminated by gratitude. Austen gets around that problem by having Darcy offer his assistance as an expiation for his sins against good sense and love.

Of course, in reality marriage back then wasn't about love but about property. Darcy’s attractiveness increases enormously when Lizzie visits his estate and realises what she’s missed. That’s why class difference mattered, and why the love romance is still as much about overcoming social as character differences.

The ideal of marriage as a union of compatible people suited for each other by both social status and property, slowly changed since Austen wrote her novels. Love became the criterion for choosing the lucky swain from amongst the competitors. Since approximately the 1950s, that’s shifted even further. Now people think that love is the justification for marriage. That's why divorce when the love is gone is not only OK, it's mandatory.

Art rules life. If you want to know where society is heading read its popular literature. Or watch TV and movies. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", said Shelley. He’s right.

2011-2018


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