Jane Austen: Queen of the Romance Tropes

jane austen

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.

Soul Mates:

  • 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.

May-December Romance:

  • 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?

 

20 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Queen of the Romance Tropes

  1. Robyn says:

    It’s interesting, I’ve only seen Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and in both of them I don’t find them centered on romance. I don’t deny it’s there, but I just don’t see that the film’s main thrust is romantic. They can be classified as chickfliks or dramas versus action books/films, for sure, but in my mind, they shouldn’t be classified as “romance literature,” although I’m sure there could be a few parallels to Song of Songs! I find the plot line more along the lines of girls that need to grow up into women. There’s an exquisite humiliation woven for both characters (Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood) to shake them out of the elemental things of life into real maturity. I love these, BOTH of them. To me they demonstrate how God extracts (often without freezing) the selfishness, that is deeply impacted in females, because of our sin nature. Of course you know I don’t mean that males do not possess selfishness also! It just plays out different in them.

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  2. Elspeth says:

    Robyn! hey!

    You caught me just as I was checking email. So good to hear from you.

    I do agree with you that Jane Austen’s books are not romance novels. They aren’t, and the books are even less romantic than the films are. Her unapologetic renderings of human nature (and not sparing female human nature) certainly place her books in a category far above boilerplate romance. On that we agree.

    But romantic interests are woven throughout the books, and she does hit all the tropes, to her credit. Marriage and the acquiring of it are the central theme in almost all of them, and all of them end with our heroines (the good and true especially) well matched.

    I think her books are dramas with strong bits of romance, historical context, and truth about men and women throughout all of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robyn says:

    “Her unapologetic renderings of human nature (and not sparing female human nature) …”

    LOVE that!! On that note, I think I might just have to watch P & P tonight!!

    I’ll tell you my very favourite line from the movie (well, one of my favourites!):

    “Mr. Darcy? I could more easily forgive his vanity if he had not wounded mine.”

    What’s one of yours?

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  4. Elspeth says:

    One of my favorites is from Mr. Knightley in Emma. I cannot overstate how much I prefer him above almost all the heroes in Austen’s collection of novels I’ve read. At one point he says:

    Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief

    When he finally gets around to professing his love, he says:

    I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.

    He kind of reminds me of my husband in the earlier years, very matter of fact, not given to sentimentality, but very passionate.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. smkoseki says:

    I think JA is a very good writer (P&P was really top flight) but her writings burn the true flame of feminism (practically started modern feminism, methinks). Myself, I like Mr. Palmer. Would dump my wife to marry E. Dashwood & A. Elliot.

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  6. Elspeth says:

    @ smk:

    Yes, Austen’s work (particularly P&P) can be read as more sympathetic to the early feminist cause. The positive spin on Lizzie Bennett’s refusal to get on board with the familial duty to suck it up and keep a roof over everyone’s head is the biggest such example that I can think of.

    In the rest of the novels, the women landed pretty well where you’d think their character AND their station in life would land them.

    Interesting that Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood are your favorites. It’s not particularly surprising, but interesting nonetheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maeve says:

    Persuasion is my absolute favorite Austen. I love Ann Elliot and Captain Wentworth. It truly is a love story and it hits every single note for me. Incidentally, I’m also crazy about “Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion” by Regina Jeffers – basically the same story but told through his eyes. The last quarter of the book flounders a bit for me, but it’s still a book I reread every year. Usually in the summer, floating in the pool (because I own it in paper). There’s also a trilogy featuring older sister Elizabeth Elliot which I also enjoyed and now I’m trying desperately to remember the title of the first book – OK, it’s Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile. OK – got a meeting. Happy Easter, Els!

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  8. Elspeth says:

    Totally O/T Maevey:

    Don’t go AWOL on me because I may be headed up your way this summer.

    And yes, Persuasion is probably my favorite as well. I love both the hero AND the heroine pretty much throughout. Captain Wentworth is a self made man which I really like.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Robyn says:

    “… familial duty to suck it up and keep a roof over everyone’s head is the biggest such example that I can think of.”

    –which is technically, and Biblically speaking … the job of men, brothers and husbands 😉

    I don’t find anything covert (or even overt) in the two stories I’ve seen. In fact, in my hay-day of a vehement feminist … I actually hated JAs plot-lines. It wasn’t until I was born again and learned about headship and submission, especially as it pertains to marriage, that I now very much appreciate the story lines. Perhaps I (and D) see it from a different perspective.

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  10. Elspeth says:

    –which is technically, and Biblically speaking … the job of men, brothers and husbands

    Well yeah, but in this case, Dad was old and poor, and all he had been blessed with was five daughters. In the absence of the ideal, alternatives must be earnestly considered. See the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27.

    In the context of modern and post-modern feminists, Jane Austen plot lines are reprehensible. The very idea that the only way a woman could eat was if she were born wealthy or married well would offend a feminist, as marriage is the thing that they really abhor unless the woman has all the power in it. However, in the context of early feminism, JA plot lines basically esteem the idea of marriage as a place where a woman should expect romantic happiness. I’m not arguing that point here in either direction, simply stating that the ‘settling’ of Charlotte Lucas and Marianne Dashwood is clearly offered as a second rate alternative to true love. That’s not how marriage had been presented to women up until first wave feminism kicked into high gear near the end of the 19th century.

    I love the plotlines as well, and I actually enjoy re-reading the novels from time to time. They never get old with me, but I do see all the nuances of what they represent.

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  11. Robyn says:

    “JA plot lines basically esteem the idea of marriage as a place where a woman should expect romantic happiness.” — I believe we find this in the Song of Songs too!

    Men and women both have expectations in marriage. Those expectations just happen to be completely opposite to one another, but both expectations find their fulfillment through marriage.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Elspeth says:

    I was trying to avoid sounding flighty by saying I wouldn’t argue the point, but I guess I should just state my position. I am all for romantic happiness in marriage (my view of marriage is also very…earthy) and am very grateful for a marriage where it flourishes!

    There’s a reason I keep mentioning time and context, and it’s because there was a certain period in time (and particularly in certain circles in Britain) where one was expected to find the fulfillment of those expectations in a marriage commensurate with one’s station in life. Ergo, a poor girl raised without so much as a governess was considered foolish to turn down marriage to a man with a decent inheritance. The chances that she would land a Mr. Darcy were laughable. In fact, I think P&P is the only place where Austen took such a leap of liberty. It’s why that particular plotline stands out and is so beloved by so many women including feminists. Most people couldn’t tell you much about anything in the other Austen novels but EVERYONE knows Pride and Prejudice because it fits well with the way we post moderns think life and love should be.

    And yes, men and women both have expectations in marriage. We make vows after all, and to expect the person who vowed to love and cherish you (or love honor and obey you) to keep their word is perfectly reasonable.

    No argument from me on that. A while back, I linked to a series of posts written by a British woman who ostensibly should know more about how these things worked in her country historically:

    https://readingbetweenthelife.com/2015/09/19/iconic-characters-mr-knightley/

    The ideas in P&P were subversive more because of WHEN they were written than what was written.

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  13. Robyn says:

    I know you were Els! and I love that coat on you.

    “The chances that she would land a Mr. Darcy were laughable.” We both see something different in it. I see that the reason Mr. Darcy was so attracted to her is because in his own immaturity and brokenness he was unable to choose from his suited station so his choice matched her level of class/financial deficit.

    Don’t you think we’re all guilty of that kind of prejudice (and pride) though? … which was the “moral of the story” to me.

    I should probably digress … you’re much more experienced than me, and I mean that literally! As you know, I’m a “watcher” of fiction not a reader of it. I know that there’s elements in the movies that are clearly captured books; and I miss them.

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  14. Maeve says:

    As you know, Els, I am a junkie for the Happily Ever After. But I want to chime in here and just say that Marianne Dashwood is one of my least favorite heroines (I keep wanting to smack her for being such a twit), while Col Brandon is one of my fav heroes and he deserved so much more than her. I can’t really blame her for falling for the devilishly attractive Mr. Willoughby – young girls are like that – they do get swept off their feat and indulge themselves with flights of fancy, imagining all sorts of wonderful romantic encounters. She just annoys the living daylights out of me.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Elspeth says:

    @ Maevey:

    I agree that Marianne ended up getting a far better man than she deserved in Colonel Brandon. I liked him, too. One figures he traded the kind of adoration I assume a man desires from his wife for Marianne’s youth and beauty, given that he was significantly older than her. He wouldn’t be the first man to make that trade, LOL, kind of the way some women trade the spark for money.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Elspeth says:

    Mr. Darcy was so attracted to her is because in his own immaturity and brokenness he was unable to choose from his suited station so his choice matched her level of class/financial deficit.

    Points for not painting Mr. Darcy as the perfect man, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Maeve says:

    Not sure I agree regarding Darcy’s choice. To a certain extent, “the heart what it wants” – I think this was very true for Darcy and Elizabeth. It’s also not taking into account that she had something to offer besides her class/financial deficit (although, she is a Gentleman’s daughter, so not like she was a merchant’s daughter) namely her intelligence and personality – which really do matter once you get past the pretty face. I don’t see Darcy as broken, but rather a man of his time and class, who suddenly found his expectations for himself and his future broken – which rather freed him to marry a woman who actually suited him as a person, rather than a personage. One of the things I do love about P&P is that it IS truly a story of setting aside your initial assumptions and expectations in order to see something better, something more, right there (I apply this equally to both parties). I do love Austen because nobody is a paragon of anything (well, maybe Anne Elliot, but I’ll give her like a million passes, LOL)

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  18. Maeve says:

    Oh definitely Elinor – how could I forget. And I might include Frederica Vernon – not sure tho, as she’s not nearly as well developed a character.

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