How Jane Austen Taught Us Romance Should Be
What is it about saying “I love you” that remains so difficult? As a human race, we seem to be constantly searching for love, discussing love, trying it out and writing about it. Ask a scientist if you want to know how your heart works. A scientist can give you a logical explanation for your heart’s jumps and patterns, the clenching and contorting. A scientist will tell you about blood flow, and how chemicals are released in the brain. A scientist will tell you all kinds of facts – all kinds of truths. But ask a writer if you want to know about love. A writer will never give you an answer; a writer will never explain methodically how we come to love and what that love is. Instead, we are given, somewhat miraculously, incandescent stories to teach us much more clearly than any chart or graph ever could.
We have William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to tell us about that fervid first love. He will tell you about love at first sight; he will explain it in verse and meter. And this is good; this is wonderful. However, it lasts but a moment. Before even a week goes by in Romeo and Juliet’s lives, they are slain. We will never know if their love was meant to last, or if their love was even founded on something stronger than adolescent lust. We are left wondering. What about love that transcends time? What about love that is not perfectly pure and undamaged; what about love broken and mended, what about love that has been with you all your life? Is “I Love You” still the only phrase you’ll need to explain it? After all, “I love you” is but three words and eight letters; a small amount of page space for a concept so large. Words can do a lot for us. We communicate, we discuss, we philosophize. We argue and debate, plan and plot. We examine and discover. Are words enough to explain love? Examining the love stories of Jane Austen demonstrates to us that our spoken words may not be enough to convey love, and that, as we age, our definitions of love build upon themselves until the words “I love you” become, ironically enough, somewhat irrelevant as a symbol of love.
For centuries, Jane Austen has set the bar for romance. “Jane-ites” and the general public at large enjoy her work, whether it is delivered to them in a paperback, BBC production or the latest Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s more than bit shocking, when we stop to ponder it, that Jane Austen’s chaste kisses survive in the same world that made E.L. James’s BDSM heavy Fifty Shades of Grey a New York Times Bestseller. What is about Jane that brings us to constantly return?
Part of it may be a desire for an orderly world. Jane Austen’s universe is the perfectly set dinner table, one in which all the forks, knives and spoons are polished and shining brightly, the tablecloth is even on every side of the table, and every guest knows how to cut their meat correctly. The boiled potatoes are excellent and the wine is never spilt. In Jane Austen’s universe, a dearth of wit in words is never found. The ideal adjective or insult is always waiting in the wings for its moment to shine. No fault, virtue, or idiosyncrasy goes unnoticed or unmentioned. The phrases cut or praise characters with elegant turns and profound thoughts. Here is a fantasy world of perfectly crafted words and clever comebacks that always appear at the right time. Characters seldom trip over their words – or if they do, we are meant to think them crude, ridiculous or ignorant. From the moment we open the comforting pages of any of Austen’s novels, we know where we stand and how to judge appropriately. It is a world as unlike our own, completely bare of blaring traffic sirens, ‘hook-up’ culture, and without traces of rape.
However, there’s to more to Jane that virtue rewarded. There’s romance, complete with strife and redemption. This romance is one that we can imagine working well within the scope of our own lives; there are no messy bits left unresolved, and all approve in the end. The love between Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth is quiet and undramatic, no longer filled with the passionate outbursts. Certainly the two are passionately in love, but their actions do not require breaches of social norm or conduct. Their love is perfectly in order with Jane Austen’s proper universe. Wentworth’s letter, although vehement in tone, is appropriately decorous. This is a love we can imagine bringing home to Thanksgiving dinner without difficulty, a love that harmonizes rather than jars with our lives. Certainly Anastasia, from the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey, would have more difficulty explaining Christian to the family!
Nor is love simply easy. Wentworth’s letter is a testament to the difficulties love can bring. Although our eyes skim the finished product and admire every facet, word and detail, surely Anne Eliot would have scrutinized it more carefully. Ever the watcher, Anne Eliot would have noted the blots of Wentworth’s pen, the places where ink gathered as he struggled to find the perfect word. The hastily written and scratched-out word, the indentations in the paper where his passion overcame him and he wrote fiercely – Anne Eliot would have found these. And Jane Austen, who left us with six painstakingly lovely novels, would have known such moments occur even for the most proficient of writers. It is not an easy thing to write, nor is it an easy thing to declare one’s love; the fact that Wentworth took the time and thought to write it out perfectly rather than simply speak incoherently is evidence of his love. Herein is words, certainly, but also action that demonstrates love. The result is more than satisfactory as “such a letter was not to be soon recovered from” (177).
Every Hollywood film seems to feature young and overtly attractive lovers; any age past twenty-five indicates that we’ve lost every chance at happiness. Persuasion, however, is a story of love regained, late in life. Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth are not young lovers – nor are they even young. Neither has escaped scars; interestingly enough, most of Captain Wentworth’s scars were given by Anne Eliot some years previously, as he waiting and hoped for her to come to him, to run away in a bold declaration of love. She never came, and Austen tells us this only in brief, for the story is what occurs when they once more meet again; the story is their present, not the flame of love that once burned so brightly. Their first “I love you,” readers may assume, passed some time ago. In fact, their story is not about attraction or romance so much as it is about constancy. For in the scope of our entire lives – which may pass in the blink of an eye or meander agonizingly slowly – attraction fades, minds wither and passion dims. What is left is constancy; and where better would one want constancy than in love?
Tellingly, the words “I love you” do not appear within Wentworth’s letter once. The closest he comes to saying those three words is “I have loved none but you” (177). However, the tone of such a phrase is quite different; his declaration is not just of love, but of monogamous love, of constancy. As we grow older, Austen herein eloquently argues, we no longer feel the need to constantly proclaim our loves. Instead, we look for a demonstration of love, of proof that love is not just in existence but will continue to exist. Wentworth’s letter serves this purpose; he takes his time writing his letter, describing his feelings, just as he has taken time to admit his feelings for Anne persist. His letter is not spontaneous; it is methodical – a demonstration that his feelings are founded on much more than a pretty face or one enchanted evening.
What have we discovered thus far? Love is difficult. It defies quick moments of spontaneity; these end in disaster, as perhaps Anne and Wentworth would have landed had their first love taken hold: “Anne Eliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen” (18) in a marriage with a man of no prospects. Instead, seven years later, at the correct time and place in Austen’s ordered universe, with characters well-established and sure of themselves, the throes of passion become acceptable. Strangely enough, the correctness and propriety of this moment does not detract from its beauty. Surely Wentworth could have snatched Anne in his arms the moment he arrived, the moment he lay eyes on her again, but such a moment would have been uncomfortable, both for Anne, Jane Austen, and the reader who has become embroiled in her world. Instead, we have moderation, propriety, good conduct and a letter rather than a spontaneous spillage of words – the love of able adults rather than reckless teenagers.
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