The perception of romance has changed during the two hundred years since Jane Austen wrote. Her perception of romance came from novels such as The Castle of Wolfenbach and The Mysteries of Udolpho both mentioned in Northanger Abbey. Wolfenbach published in 1793,written by Eliza Parsons has a heroine Matilda an orphan suffering near incest by an uncle and menaced by an evil count. But she ends up with her true love, Count de Bouville. Udolpho by Ann Radcliff was published in 1794 also about an orphan who suffers a similar fate but ends up with her true love, Valancourt.
These were the archetypical romances of Jane Austen’s youth with young women in peril saved by heroic men. Theatrical in nature they had heroine’s unable to control their emotions or withstand confrontation, often fainting and swooning. They had to endure horror and heartache before the ‘happy ending’.
So it is no surprise that Jane wrote to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s Chaplain when he suggested she write a historical romance about the house of Cobourg and said:
“I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.” From a letter of 1 April 1816
But Jane changed our perception of romance. While her novels incorporated many of the situations of the standard gothic romances of the era, it was never the heroine or hero involved in the scandals. The heroine was never weak or silly. The hero no superman coming to the rescue although she uses that as well. But for Jane the heroism was based on a sense of honor and responsibility.
Edward Ferrars does the honorable thing by accepting responsibility for the rash actions of his youth but when he is freed he offers his hand and is accepted by Elinor in spite of his disinheritance. Edmund Bertram marries his low born cousin. Henry Tilney disobeys his father to ask for Catherine’s hand in marriage. Anne and Captain Wentworth marry even though their fortunes have reversed in the seven intervening years since his first proposal. Emma and Mr. Knightley are the only ones of equal status.
For Jane, Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine “….he is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’ is how Jane truly felt. That class and situation should have no bearing on a match. A marriage should be based on love, mutual understanding and respect, not on money, land or connections.
The couples in her books marry simply out of love and respect. This was not romantic for her, it was simply the way it ought to be. The men love women because they are independent in thought and strong in character not in spite of it. That is why two hundred years later we all relate to and identify with her characters.
Jane being considered the ultimate author of romance would make her laugh and I believe she would consider it absolutely absurd that anyone even remembers her. But we do and I suspect we will for another two hundred years. She changed our perception of romance whether she meant to or not.
Come have a cup of tea and visit with Jane at Austenticity.com