Recently, an earnest 18-year-old young woman asked me a question in the wake of a spirited discussion in her literature class. They read and were discussing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It was a question I dislike and tend to circumvent for myriad reasons, one of which is that I am conflicted on the subject. There is a “right” answer, an answer based on my own experience and marriage, and the truth, which is somewhere in between the two. By now, you may be wondering what the question was, so here it is:
“Mrs. T, do you think people should marry for more pragmatic reasons or only when they find ‘true love’?”
It was the end of the day, so I asked her to let me think about it in the hopes that she would forget to come back to me and follow up. Thankfully, it seems she forgot, but I didn’t forget and her question made me consider the various romance tropes to be found in classical literature.
More specifically, I noted that Jane Austen’s novels touch on almost every conceivable route to the altar to be found in life and literature. When you get past the familiar underlying theme of women on the cusp on spinsterhood, the story arcs offer a fair amount of variety. As I said, Jane Austen hits all the romance tropes (and some not so romantic tropes). Here are just a few, in no particular order:
Friends to Lovers:
- Emma (1815). The titular character and heroine Emma meddles in everyone else’s affairs, offering bungling them while remaining clueless to the chaos she’s left in her wake. Mr. Knightley, the only sane man in the room and Emma’s eventual husband, is always there to set her straight and bring her back down to earth. I have a particular fondness for Mr. Knightley.
- Sense and Sensibility (1811). This is one isn’t readily included in this trope because Elinor and Edward clearly forge an emotional bond early in the novel. However, it is clear that they are also good friends, and Edward was engaged to another woman initially before eventually being freed to marry Elinor.
- Mansfield Park (1814): In the midst of a story replete with broken hearts, infidelities, and all around awfulness, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, her cousin by marriage, eventually recognize how important they are to each other and get married.
Enemies to Lovers:
- Pride and Prejudice (1813): Lizzy initially finds Mr. Darcy pompous, then evil, and eventually realizes that the tallest, handsomest, and richest man around is the perfect man for her.
- Persuasion (1817): Having -under family duress- broken her engagement to Frederick Wentworth seven years earlier, the novel opens 7 year later with Anne Elliot still unmarried at 27, and the much wealthier and more established Captain Wentworth is also still unmarried. His love for Anne is as fervent as it was when they were young. After the customary dramatic twists and turns, they end up together.
If you can’t be with one you love, love the one you’re with:
- Pride and Prejudice: I suspect the marriage of Charlotte Lucas to the obnoxious and offensive Mr. Collins was the impetus of the question posed to me by the young student.
- Sense and Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood landed quite a catch in Colonel Brandon, but should the story have continued, it would have been a few years before she fully appreciated it.
- Sense and Sensibility: Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood are ages 37 and 19 respectively when they eventually marry. Mr. Knightley and Emma are ages 37 and 21 when they are wed.
Fools Rush In:
- Pride and Prejudice (1813): The foolish and rebellious Lydia Bennett runs off with the caddish and opportunistic Mr. Wickham, leaving Mr. Darcy to try and save her honor by paying Wickham a large dowry to marry Lydia.
- Sense and Sensibility: Before coming to her senses and marrying Colonel Brandon, Marianne Dashwood foolishly gives her heart to Mr. Willoughby, and spend the lion’s share of the novel pining a man who is never going to marry her.
Those are just a few of the major tropes that spring to mind as I consider all that is encompassed in Jane Austen’s magnificent body of work. There are of course, many more; unrequited love, redemption, and whatever it is called when a man thinks a woman can save him as Henry Crawford seems to think that Fanny Price will do for him in Mansfield Park.
Can you think of any other Austen tropes which I might have missed?