Learning love from Jane Austen

‘Sunday 15 October 9st (better), alcohol units 5 (but special occasion), cigarettes 16, calories 2456, minutes spent thinking about Mr. Darcy 245.

8.55 p.m. Just nipped out for fags prior to getting changed ready for BBC Pride and Prejudice. … Love the nation being so addicted. The basis of my own addiction, I know, is my simple human need for Darcy to get off with Elizabeth.’

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary

Explaining to new acquaintances that I am writing a thesis on Jane Austen almost invariably brings forth confessions of Austen affection. Rare is the social gathering at which no-one is prepared to launch forth on the particular merits of Persuasion or to gush about Colin Firth’s Darcy. Austen is widely loved, but her
novels are inevitably loved differently at different moments in time, by each successive wave of readers. My own late-marrying, thirty-something generation is identified with a particular pattern or pathology of appreciation made plain by Helen Fielding’s 1996 rewriting of Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary. It would seem that we revel in screen adaptations of Austen novels, and (often only subsequently) the novels themselves, because we are seduced by the promise of the love story genre: the guarantee that ‘perfect matches’ can, and will, be made. Like Bridget, we are gladdened by the certainty that all will end in the ambivalent realm of ‘Smug Married’ rather than the (equally ambivalent) world of the ‘Singleton’.

Early 20th-century critics like Mary Lascelles read Austen novels for their ‘artistry’, for their finely structured sentences. In the mid-century, F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling elucidated the complex moral balances weighed by each work. But when blockbuster crowds head for cinema multiplexes throughout the Western world, looking forward to the next Austen rom-com period drama, we can be sure they are not drawn by the prospect of elegant sentences or elegant ethics. What holds us at an Austen adaptation is the tension generated when Gwyneth Paltrow shifts her attention from Ewan McGregor
to Jeremy Northam, or the satisfaction of seeing Emma Thompson finally united with Hugh Grant. The element of Austen’s novels that the adaptations grasp is plot, and the aspect or interpretation of the plots they reinforce—indeed that they advertise—is the love story.

The love story, or ‘romance’, or ‘romantic comedy’, is not a genre of literature or film that garners great intellectual respect. Other populist and predictable forms of narrative fare far better: the western, the thriller, and the detective novel all generate pages of earnest cultural analysis. These comparisons suggest it is not the aesthetic weaknesses of the love story that prevent us from taking it seriously. Rather, serious analysis of the genre can feel uncomfortable because its particular attributes and associations—femininity, sentimentality, ‘coupliness’—are culturally constructed as outside, even averse to, the realm of analysis and the intellect. (Gun violence, manipulated fear, and contrived mystery somehow manage to be more compatible with the world of the mind. Such are the arcane operations of culture.) Yet the love story is a genre with incredible longevity, reach and power. Rather than criticise the inevitability of its conclusions, or its customarily saccharine, anodyne content, it is worth pondering upon, and indeed revelling in, its magnetism. Austen’s plots provide a socially sanctioned opportunity for such indulgent inquiry.

A love story tells of two characters becoming a couple. Attraction between the pair is gradually intensified during the narrative, despite being thwarted by misunderstandings, family disapproval, past misdeeds, or the interference of a third party. At the story’s conclusion all barriers are overcome, all miscommunication is unravelled, and the desired union is achieved. The plot lines pivot around scenes of dialogue. Love stories show us two different discourses—two ways of seeing and two ways of speaking—merging or coming to agreement.

Austen is jaw-droppingly superb in her handling of love story plots: she is past mistress of this art. Her timing is exact; her development of obstacles to union is always credible; her delineation of feelings is precise, never squelchy. Her characters have exquisitely distinct voices and rhetorics that are maintained even as they shift from discord to harmony. If we distinguish love story plots from those in novels of sentiment and novels of seduction (and I believe we should, because the reader-response demanded is so different), then Austen’s books are among the first love story novels, ‘romance novels’, in English. While Shakespeare’s comedies are the archetypal love stories in English drama, Austen writes the essential love story novels. Her six complete works (perhaps Mansfield Park less so, but especially Pride and Prejudice) are templates for innumerable later authors, scriptwriters, and hacks.

For a love story to work, the reader must be cajoled or schooled into accepting its fundamental premise: that couples and the process of coupling are matters of primary import. Further, the reader must be seduced into desiring the fulfilment of a love story’s reigning promise: that ‘a good match’ will be made before the narrative concludes. Our yearning for the ever-delayed union must build alongside that of the characters. A love story that does not persuade us to care about who ends up with whom, or indeed about whether anyone ends up with anyone, has failed its purpose.

The marriage of Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon at the end of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has been heavily criticised on these grounds. Critics claim that the reader has been swept up in the
passion between Marianne and her dashing cad Willoughby, and cannot then accept her change of heart towards the older, quietly meritorious Brandon. This is not the union we have come to desire, say these critics—therefore either our desire or the final union have been mismanaged by the author. Such criticism fails to read Marianne’s plot next to her sister Elinor’s. Elinor’s plot is a quintessential love story, with all the heartfelt satisfaction at its conclusion that anyone could wish for. Marianne’s story stands as a contrast, a counter-narrative, that draws attention to our genre expectations. Our romanticism is challenged just as Marianne’s is. None of this prevents us from thrilling at Elinor and Edward’s concluding joyful felicity, but alongside this pleasure it offers a more distanced position from which we can observe and ironise this love story and our own reactions to it.

Even Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s classic love story, contains its own counter-narrative. Charlotte Lucas accepts the grating, prating, preaching Mr Collins for the economic security and comforts of married life: ‘solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment’. Charlotte clearly has no faith in the premises and promises of love stories, but her anti-romantic decision is not punished with an unhappy outcome. Elizabeth Bennett’s fairytale romance and the story of sensible Charlotte sit side by side, their differences forcing us to acknowledge the fictionality of both.

The main plots in Austen novels are brilliant love stories that inspire our complicit faith in, and desire for, ‘a good match’ with apparent effortlessness. But this faith and desire is interrupted, complicated, and gently mocked by minor counter-narratives. My generation of Austen devotees is not wrong in being seduced by adaptations that cut out the counter-narratives and reduce the novels to pure and simple love stories. Love stories are seductive, Austen’s particularly so. Those who scorn being captured by her handling of the genre, who insist on premising their appreciation on other grounds entirely, are missing something vital. But if we are learning love from Austen, I believe we extend the delights of this genre by returning to, and reflecting on, the cunter-narratives. A narrative that is inside the novel, and yet outside the love story plot, enables us to appreciate that plot in the abstract—to read it as participating in a genre, in a set of conventions, that we and our narrator are playing with together.

The counter-narratives within the novels may appear to be confirmed by Austen’s biography. Austen lived her adult life with her sister and widowed mother. She died in her early forties without apparently having made ‘a good match’ for herself. Her life story will not confirm the premises and promises of the love story. However, the ‘reality’ of Austen’s personal history is like the ‘reality’ of ‘reality TV’ in that it is utterly manufactured by the forms in which it is transmitted. Her first biographer was a nephew who unsurprisingly characterised his subject as a benign, demure maiden aunt. Popular representations of Austen have maintained this construction ever since. In the mainstream imagination, the defining feature of this author is her singleness, her uncoupliness, her ‘spinsterhood’, and this state of being is envisioned, as ‘spinsterhood’ so often has been, as sexless, cloistered, limited. Yet Austen’s narrator, whose voice is often read as her own, is knowledgeable, flirtatious, witty and often rude. Even ‘real life’, it seems, contains irreconcilable contradictions.

To use Austen’s biography to confirm her love stories as ‘false’ and her counter-love-stories as ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ means giving great emphasis to her marital status. This is a contradictory acceptance of the basic premise of love stories: that couples and coupling are of primary import. Instead of searching for a point of simple correspondence between Austen’s life or opinions and the world of her novels, we need to come to terms with the complex fictionality employed throughout her writing.

We cannot know whether Austen’s single state was a matter to which she gave much thought. What we can be certain of is her complete intellectual and emotional engagement with novels, fiction and stories. Austen was a reader. She was intimately familiar with all the major fictional works of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Austen family read novels aloud to one another in the evening. They had in-jokes about fictional characters and about ridiculous conventions of plot or language. Austen’s letters and novels are saturated with references to, and plays upon, other novels. Her early writings all satirise popular fictional forms.

When Austen discusses the books she loves, her tone is both admiring and knowing. This balanced dual-vision is the stance she seems to recommend for reading her own love stories: not credulousness, nor slavish absorption, nor snide dismissal, but playful enjoyment that is both engaged and detached. It is simultaneously inside and outside the story.

If Austen’s love stories teach us anything, it is not so much ‘love’ as love for stories. Austen’s plots are not messages from the author about ‘life’—they are frolics with the conventions of storytelling. The novels do not guarantee us ‘a good match’ for ourselves; they do not offer instruction in how to captivate our own Darcy or deserve our own Emma. Rather they share with us the fun of reading a love story. As the narrator of Northanger Abbey tells us about our heroine Catherine Morland: ‘… provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all.’

It is this vital aspect of Austen novels that the screen adaptations and rewrites lose. They give us a story, not stories about stories. In grasping the very marketable tension and seduction of the novels’ love story plots, they miss their distanced irony, the narrator’s knowing tone, and the outside perspective offered by the counter-narratives. The adaptations don’t play with the love story genre; they deploy it. They invest it with the realism of apparently complete and concrete depiction. Some keep their tongues in their cheeks more consistently than others. (Surprisingly, the American teen movie Clueless, which uses the plot of Emma, is filmed with greater irony than many more ‘faithful’ adaptations.) Yet none of the recent attempts to redo Austen have the complexity and plurality of narratives, and the well-read love of stories we find in her novels.

The most intense, intimate relationship in Austen novels is not the developing tension between the heroine and hero, but the intelligent, affectionate exchange between the reader and the narrator. The narrator flatters us with irony, and charms us with wit. It is the admiration we develop for this confident, knowing voice that teaches us about love—most importantly about love for reading and for stories.

Eleanor Collins is completing a PhD on gender and choice in Austen at the University of Oxford. She is getting married in July.



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