Nobody Writes a Love Story like Jane Austen
To mark the month of love, Robert Morrison, British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and author of The Regency Revolution, celebrates the most famous romance of the past two centuries – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
All six of Jane Austen’s published novels are similar, some detractors might even say formulaic. They are all comedies of manners in which courtship is the foremost interest and marriage the highest ambition. All six end happily with misunderstandings cleared up and obstacles swept away. Like tens of thousands of other romances from Austen’s day to ours, in all six of her novels the central couple is united and a lifetime of happiness together at least seems assured.
Most of the romance novels published in the last two hundred years, however, made little or no impression when they first appeared and soon faded from view. Yet we return again and again to Austen, and especially to Pride and Prejudice, which is her most successful love story, and which continues to exert an enormous hold on the popular imagination, for to ‘fall in love’ today still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy. How does Austen make Pride and Prejudice so much more compelling than the love stories of her countless imitators and rivals? What makes the novel so seductive and romantic?
Several factors are of course at work. One of them is Austen’s ability to bring to life in fiction her own intense interest in her characters. She cares what happens to them and she makes us care as well, transforming us in spite of ourselves into Mrs Bennet, as we, like her, fret endlessly over the five Bennet daughters and how to get them all married off. By this point we all know what happens in Pride and Prejudice. But when we reread the novel—for the first or for the umpteenth time—we turn the pages as anxiously as ever to find out what is going to befall these characters. ‘The power of making you do this is the greatest gift a novelist can have’, observed the British author and playwright Somerset Maugham in his 1948 essay on Austen, and it makes all of her romances immensely readable.
Jane Bennet, for example, lived so clearly in Austen’s mind that, wandering through a London picture gallery four months after Pride and Prejudice was published, she spied ‘a small portrait’ that was ‘excessively’ like Jane following her marriage to Mr Bingley, an incident that reveals that Austen continued to imagine the lives of her characters even after the action of the novel had finished and the novel itself had been published. ‘Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself’, Austen enthuses in a letter to her sister Cassandra, ‘—size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her’. Austen had also hoped on the same visit to see a painting of Jane’s sister Elizabeth after her marriage—dressed ‘in yellow’, she conjectured—but she discovered ‘no Mrs Darcy’ among the portraits.
She is tolerable: but not handsome enough to tempt me
Another element that energizes the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth is Austen’s remarkable ability to convince us that they are moving steadily toward one another even as outward events seem to be pushing them further and further apart. The first time the two are in the same room, Darcy rejects the opportunity to dance with her, declaring infamously, ‘She is tolerable: but not handsome enough to tempt me’. Elizabeth laughs off the slight but this is the last thing she wants to hear. She needs to marry well, and in the judgment of a handsome, rich stranger, she is not pretty enough to attract a man.
Six months later, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the most famous scene in Pride and Prejudice. This time it is her turn to snub him and she does so with vigour, damning him for his ‘arrogance’, his ‘conceit’, and his ‘selfish disdain of the feelings of others’. Concludes Elizabeth: ‘I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’. No one—let alone a socially inferior woman—will ever have spoken to Darcy in that tone and in those terms.
Yet one part of Elizabeth’s declaration is far from what we might have expected. Darcy’s rudeness to her at their first encounter, it is easy to assume, turned her against him almost immediately—in, say, ‘a moment’, ‘an hour’, or ‘an evening’. But in the proposal scene she lets slip that she had not known him ‘a month’ before deciding that he was ‘the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’. Darcy has stayed in Elizabeth’s thoughts, then, and perhaps in her fantasies too, far longer than the tension and verbal sparring between them has led us to believe. The fireworks in the proposal scene end when Darcy accepts Elizabeth’s rejection and leaves. But the exchange itself becomes heated because he matters to her, and she is trying to get through to him, to make him see the extent to which he has misunderstood both her and himself.
A final factor animating the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth is Austen’s conviction that mutual respect is at the crux of romantic love. At the outset there is a stark power imbalance between them. He is a man of eminence who is used to getting his own way, and who moves assertively through a world of elegance, tradition, and landed wealth. She is a vulnerable younger woman who can already feel the pressure of spinsterhood and penury, and whose only opportunity to climb the social hierarchies is through marriage to a man like him.
Darcy’s proposal is—at least in his view—a very romantic one. Yes, he knows he should not even be contemplating a match with Elizabeth. Her position in life is so far below his own as to be a degradation to him, while her family is an acute embarrassment. But he cannot help himself. His love for her is overwhelming. He wants her to become his wife.
The comeuppance Elizabeth hands him is unforgettable. Darcy was expecting deference and gratitude. Instead, Elizabeth confronts him with a demand for respect. Darcy believes that he was born a gentleman. Elizabeth believes that someday he might become one. He presumes that he knows what she wants and talks down to her. Elizabeth looks straight through him and speaks her mind. Darcy tells her that he ‘hopes’ she will accept him. Elizabeth recognizes this claim as the empty formality that it is. She ‘could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security’.
Ultimately, of course, both Elizabeth and Darcy are transformed by their need for each other. Elizabeth accepts that Darcy ‘improved on acquaintance’, while Darcy learns ‘how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’. There is, Elizabeth smiles, still work for her to do even after she accepts Darcy’s second proposal, for she ‘remembers that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin’. But theirs is a union of equals in which merit triumphs over birth, individual preference over dynastic alliance, and female desire over male presumption.
Love, Austen knew, is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Pride and Prejudice she produces the most famous romance of the past two centuries, and one that demonstrates the enormous possibilities for innovation and insight within the familiar formula of the Regency romance. Austen imbues her characters with a depth and vitality that live in our imaginations as intensely as they lived in hers. With great subtlety she reveals the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy are drawing closer to one another even in those moments when their relationship seems to be stalling or unravelling.
Above all, Austen knew—far ahead of her own time—that couples for all their differences needed to treat each other as equals, and that respect is the foundation upon which love flourishes.
The Regency Revolution is Robert Morrison’s latest book. It was named by The Economist as one of its 2019 Books of the Year and shortlisted by the Historical Writers’ Association for its Crown Award for the best in historical non-fiction. He is also the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press.