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.

our authority on love: Jane Austen herself
our authority on love: Jane Austen herself

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).

a still from the BBC's 2007 production of Persuasion, starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones
a still from the BBC’s 2007 production of Persuasion, starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I think that this is one of the first sensible and intelligent article about Austen’s work I’ve read- most writings on her work are attention-seeking and try to lever the books inot the writer’s own prejuduces or obsessions.

    • mccartyj

      Wow. Thank you! There’s a truly beautiful journal by Anna Quindlen out there on the internet somewhere called “Imagining Jane Austen” if you’re looking for some more writing on her.

  2. My partner loves Austen.
    And she’s smarter than a fox with a degree and an iPad.
    She has dragged me kicking and screaming to a new found appreciation of her work.

  3. LauraThorp

    I think your ideas about the constancy and order of the world in all of Austen’s novels are spot on. That’s why the love expressed in each novel (at least the love story involving the main character) seems deeper and more meaningful. It’s deliberate and an actual choice, more so than what we often associate with ‘young love’. And I like to think that Austen certainly did this on purpose, especially since there was always at least one other love storyline that served as a foil to the success and legitimacy of the main love plot: Maria Bertram and Mr. Crawford, Lydia Bennet and George Wickahm, etc.

    • mccartyj

      I like to think that too! I also think it certainly shows that Persuasion is Austen’s last work; there’s a definite progression from Catherine Morland’s flights of fancy to Anne Eliot’s steady patience. Thanks!

  4. Mary Awad

    This was a very interesting article! I was never an Austen fan but still admire her talent and I can tell with this article that she is very gifted and knows much about the human condition. Thanks for writing~

  5. I read all of Austen before I left for university. Even the shorter pieces. And the unfinished ones. Best author.

  6. This woman has a lot to answer for. Portraying the country as a gentle civilised place when social conditions were absolutely appalling and the rich made their money from the slave trade. Fast forward several hundred years and her work is translated on to the small screen and we are fed a diet of non stop trivia. She led a boring life writing incy wincy novels about nothing of any great importance.

    • mccartyj

      Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Obviously mine differs rather drastically than yours. You are right though, that Austen leaves out a lot of pressing social problems – one of which is slavery, another of which is war. For example, Pride and Prejudice was written around 1813, a year which also held some of the Napoleonic Wars. The militia are heavily present in Pride and Prejudice, but not as a fighting force. Personally, I think this was a deliberate choice. The militia during the war were not exactly popular, and largely ineffective. Their transformation into a dance crew rather than a fighting force is a part of her social satire. Certainly Austen’s works are quite subtle, and thereby it is possible to miss particles of them. We can’t say that she encompasses an entire world or does work as a crusader against injustice. She was a product of her times, as much as we are. But I think we need to consider her statements on gender and womanhood in the times. Portraying the “gentle civilised” people of the world can be seen as “rich white girl problems,” but the problems existed nonetheless. Women, perhaps even especially those in the gentry, had no options in life other than being destitute and single, or marrying – perhaps unhappily. In the times, this was quite important. I don’t think it is fair to say her novels are “incy wincy” and focus on “nothing of any great importance.” Marriage and money are quite important in the times – and ours, for that matter. Moreover, Austen’s social satire is often ignored in favor of romance, but this is product of our own times as much as anything else. The social satire exists nonetheless, and is a crucial element of Austen’s writing. I don’t know how much you’ve had the chance to read, but some sections of Persuasion are quite cutting, and it might be worth a reread! Thanks!

  7. I truly cannot count how often I have read and enjoyed the novels – every reading another perfect connection is revealed, thus every reading is richer.

  8. What I love about Austen is her portrayal of women’s lives, both the domestic and public aspects, granted, it is the lives of a relatively priveleged class. Yet, without Austen, our understanding of the lives of these women (and their mileau) would be far poorer.

    For me Austen is brilliant at conveying the restricted options that women of this period and class had (priveledged as they were). Marriage was really the only decent “career” option to them; everything else (spinsterhood and governess) conferred real loser status. Austen, while seemingly amused at the shenanigans centered around the game and rituals of marriage, also managed to convey just how desparate the situation could be for women (and their families) reliant on a “good match” – particularly if they chose badly or aquired “reputations” that knocked them out of contention for a solid “settlement”. For all the emphasis on marrying for love, such as that between Mr Darcy and Lizzie B – there was a very mercenerary eye towards the fortunes that Mr Dary brought to such a marriage – the economic reality of marriage was never far from Austen’s (or her contemporary audience’s-) mind.

  9. Kelly Hanson

    The interesting thing about Jane Austen is how like us her characters are. They like the good things in life and they fear penury old age and death.

  10. Excellent! I read Austen pretty closely.

  11. She crafted pure, beautifully rounded works.

  12. What I love most about Austen is her ability to beautifully and carefully shape the human experience. The love stories seem real and ask us to examine our own hearts. They are not merely tropes, like so many romantic novels today. Instead, they are witty and crafted to evoke true feelings. They inspire us to look for the beauty and brains in a world crawling with villains, idiots, and bores. She teaches us not to settle, but to search for love.

    I loved your article. I think you could even do more by exploring the symbols involved in Persuasion that influence the story of regained love.

  13. Your ideal of love has a tinge of reality woven through it that keeps the nuances of “love” fresh and interesting. I liked your recognition of the value of scars in bringing a depth to love. I enjoy Jane Austen’s writing and you have reminded me why!

  14. Donielle

    I read Persuasion for the first time this year and was refreshed. I think you are right on about how “[Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth’s] story is not about attraction or romance so much as it is about constancy.” And, that is what makes it rare and beautiful.
    Our culture is often caught up in feelings and entertainment and distraction (Fahrenheit 451 was prophetic) but, on a deeper level, I think we yearn for the kind of story Austin presents— one about a lifestyle of faithful love rather than a hundred moments of thoughtless lust with different people.
    Thank you for this article, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  15. genkisloth

    I really liked this, Persuasion is a beautiful novel. Jane Austen does tend to go towards the mature, slow and steady love stories rather than the whirl wind gushy romances of today. But I suppose it could be argued that they were quite gushy for the time. Nevertheless, great article!

  16. Helen Parshall

    I’m a self-proclaimed Janeite, although I feel like a fraud having Persuasion still to read. Your article may have just been the push I needed. Excellent piece!

  17. Though I have only had exposure to two Jane Austen movies (I know, shame on me), I can safely say that I agree with you. I’m not a fan of the romance genre in general (though I do enjoy a few stories here and there), Jane Austen’s work has fairly charmed me. I love that she wrote of ups and downs, of things beautiful and things beastly, of love based on far more than just emotions. And that when her characters say “I love you” (or whatever period-appropriate/situation-appropriate equivalent), it’s not just empty babbling, but something truly deep-set and wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing!

  18. Helen Parshall

    I never put two and two together about the oddity that is a culture that reveres Jane Austen and devours things like 50 Shades of Grey. Excellent article! Jane Austen is and will always be one of my heroes.

  19. I love Austen and each one of her novels. However, despite there being genuine instances of love / romance in each of her stories, I found Austen’s themes to be less about real love and romance, but rather a social commentary on marriage as a means of upward mobility. More specifically on gender inequality in the 19th C, because for the female characters, a good marriage was their only means of improving their class / status in society, and thus their standard of living. As if none of her heroines had nothing better to do than try and find a husband with some money. These characters are often contrasted with those who do find true love…however…even these men are all still conveniently handsome and rich. On the surface, sure. These are great love stories that make us feel good. Below the surface Austen is using her writing as a critique on Victorian society, and was challenging norms and the status quo.

  20. Rachel Watson

    This is a very interesting and well-written take on Austen’s classic contributions to the literary canon. Our desire for an orderly universe and the comfort that brings is certainly one of the main reasons why her works are still so relevant today. However, if I may, I might offer a retort to one of your assertions that Austen’s works are “completely bare of…’hook-up’ culture, and without traces of rape.” While the central love stories of her novels do develop in a picturesque fashion without violence or abuse, many of the secondary characters–particularly female characters–fall prey to abusive men and are either scarred from the interaction or trapped in a abusive relationship. The character of Mr. Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice” comes to mind. He involves himself first with Mr. Darcy’s younger sister before leaving her, and then eventually seduces and elopes with Lydia Bennet, who we can only assume realizes the pitfall of her flirtatious nature when it’s too late. Both of these potential love stories are fraught with (at least) mental and emotional abuse. The same can be said about Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility.” We learn that he also became involved with a young woman and left her for better financial prospects. But I especially think of Lydia as an example of Austen writing about not only the love of adults, but also that of reckless teenagers. She is not afraid to more than imply that physical desire and sexual attraction in young teenage girls (who, by the way, can be encouraged to be flirts by mothers like Mrs. Bennet) can lead women astray and into abusive relationships for the rest of their lives. But this does not take away from your observations on Austen’s descriptions of love as moderate and in the realm of adults–indeed, it only goes to show that true romance is that of passion, but passion that is tempered with mutual respect and maturity.

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