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Jane Austen Didn't Write Romances

Yesterday I flew to beautiful tree-covered Oregon, where I have a job interview this afternoon. Travel can be fun, but it can also be dreadfully dull. The drive to the airport, flights, layovers, train and bus rides to the hotel took a full twelve hours from 6:30 am EST to 3:30 pm PST, and I didn't have much to do during them but sit quietly or nap.

The six hours of flying were the worst, stuck in a tiny cabin with no freedom or personal space. Since I don't have a tablet or a smartphone, and my laptop is too large to use in a tiny airplane seat, I could only sneak envious glances at all of the passengers around me watching movies, reading the news, or getting work done while I listened to songs I've heard a zillion times on the mp3 player I borrowed from Sweetie. Even the white-haired, arthritic man across the aisle was taking photos out the window with his iPhone.

Eventually, bored out of my mind, I reached for the American Way magazine in the pouch of the seat in front of me. First I read about some list published by professors at Beloit College that points out how different today's incoming college freshmen are compared to previous generations. To my indifference, I found that from the class of 2017's point of view, some famous people I've never heard of have always been dead. (Frankly, looking at the full list online, I think the authors are behind the times already...no one knows who Captain Janeway is anymore.) Then I flipped to an article by women's fiction writer Allison Winn Scotch praising Keri Russell's latest film, Austenland.

Just because Keri Russell plays a ruthless Soviet spy on FX's The Americans doesn't mean she can't still get in touch with her softer side, the side that fans adored in Russell's breakout role on Felicity. Indeed, in her new film, festival favorite Austenland...Russell stars as a Jane Austen-obsessed singleton who vacations at a Jane Austen-themed theme park in search of love and adventure (in an early-1900s sort of way).

First of all, "early 1900s"? I don't expect the average person to know the exact year Pride and Prejudice was published, or to recognize the time period of the costumes the actors are wearing in the photo, but could no one at American Way magazine take two seconds to type "Jane Austen" into Google and see the years 1775–1817?

Why, Allison? Why? I read your blog! I trusted you!

But once I got over that erroneous digit, I thought the premise sounded kind of fun. Most Austen-themed movies set in the modern world are unbearable. The Jane Austen Book Club was as fresh and natural as bagged cotton candy from the dollar store. Becoming Jane has a rating of 57% ("rotten") on Rotten Tomatoes, despite Anne Hathaway's noble efforts to rescue it from predictable froth. But Austenland sounded like it was more satire than exploitation of "Austen Power"—the phenomenon that nets studios millions of dollars every time they make a new adaptation of one of Jane's novels. So when I finally arrived at my hotel and settled down with the free Wi-Fi, I looked it up.

To my disappointment, but not my surprise, the general consensus is that Austenland falls into the same frilly costume rom-com trappings as its sisters. On the surface, it's about a woman obsessed with cliche romantic fantasies finally growing out of her Regency-era tea sets and life-sized Colin Firth cutouts. But, in the end, the movie is itself another cliche romantic fantasy. It isn't about Keri Russel's character's growth, but her flirtations with various good-looking men. Oh, sure, she comes to her senses and tosses out her VHS boxed sets of Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries...just before her own Mr. Darcy comes knocking at the door to declare his undying love.

Why are all of the movies about Jane Austen and her works so terrible? Well, for one thing, they're all slapdash productions of half-baked ideas, as Hollywood producers rush to capitalize on the trend. But for another, I think people fundamentally misunderstand the author herself.

When Hollywood wants to make a Jane Austen-themed movie, what do they do? They make a romance. A romantic comedy, romantic drama, historical romance...one of the basic formulas that gets Victoria Secret-clad tuckuses in the theater seats. They make a movie that's all about fashion and parties and breathtaking romance.

But here's the problem: Jane Austen's novels are about none of those things.

Jane Austen did not write romances. Jane Austen wrote Bildungsroman—coming-of-age novels. Romance is often an important element in her stories, but it is not the backbone of her stories. Calling Emma a romance is like calling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a murder mystery—just because a book has some elements of a genre doesn't mean it belongs to it.

The only Austen book I would consider classifying as a romance is Pride and Prejudice, which is probably why it's the most popular of the bunch. In all of the others, romance only hums quietly in the background until the hero pops the question at the end. Here's what the books are actually about:

  • Sense and Sensibility: Two sisters with opposing worldviews (Marianne the romantic, Elinor the rationalist) learn that real people don't fit neatly into any ideal.
  • Pride and Prejudice: A young woman who's a bit too confident in her wit and good judgement learns to admit she can be wrong.
  • Mansfield Park: A girl who's always been pushed around draws on her inner strength to stick to what she knows is right in spite of peer pressure.
  • Emma: A social butterfly amuses herself by manipulating the love lives of everyone around her, until she discovers that she knows very little about either love or life.
  • Northanger Abbey: A silly teenager who reads too many Gothic romances faces the consequences of letting her imagination run away with her.
  • Persuasion: A woman who cared too much for the opinions of other people learns to see through them and go after what she wants for herself.

In a romance novel, the central focus is on the relationship between the heroine and the hero. In Jane Austen's novels, the focus is always directly on the heroine, her flaws, and her growth as she overcomes them. Men exist on the periphery of the story world as commentators, agitators, or incentives for the heroine to change, but they rarely have much (or anything) to do with the plot. They just show up in the last chapter to suddenly, and sometimes inexplicably (I'm looking at you, Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney), propose marriage and deliver the "happy ending."

If the books are about any relationships, they're the relationships between women. The heroines devote only a small fraction of their time to their love interests, and they spend the rest with sisters, girlfriends, rivals, mothers and mother figures. Emma is as much about Emma & Harriet and Emma & Jane Fairfax as it is about Emma & George Knightley. The central conflicts in Persuasion are between Anne and the overbearing Lady Russell, Anne and her self-absorbed sisters, and Anne and her prettier, younger love rivals. Captain Wentworth basically comes along for the ride. And Sense and Sensibility, of course, is all about the two sisters and their mother, plus a couple of catty in-laws and a scheming social climber who sinks her money-grubbing claws into Elinor's man.

If men do figure into the storyline, they're usually the ones the heroines do not marry in the end. Anne Elliot spends much more story time with her materialistic father, her unfortunate brother-in-law Charles, her platonic admirer William Elliot, and her fellow bibliophile James Benwick than she does with the designated hero, Captain Wentworth. Emma devotes hers to her hypochondriac father, her immature "lover" Frank (who's secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax), and the pompous Mr. Elton (who marries the vulgar Augusta Hawkins for her money). Marianne Dashwood's story is all about her heartbreak at the hands of the philandering Mr. Willoughby, and her marriage to Colonel Brandon is a bit of a consolation prize. Fanny Price barely interacts with Edmund Bertram at all, and when she does Edmund just blabbers about another girl—the most significant men in her life are really her adoptive father Sir Thomas and her rejected suitor Henry Crawford.

It's not surprising at all that Jane Austen didn't write about men much, since interactions between the sexes in her time and class were infrequent and strictly regulated. It's also not surprising that modern audiences focus on the romances and ignore what Austen's books are really about. Heart-pounding love stories between lovely heroines and dashing heroes make blockbuster movies; stories of personal introspection and maturity do not.

But if Hollywood bigwigs want to make a Jane Austen themed movie that rates more than two stars on average, they have to reach beyond the rom-com formula. They have to try to understand why Austen's novels have remained popular for 200 years, while her contemporaries who wrote predictable melodramas disappeared from public memory.

Why, in the world of 2013, with completely different social standards and ideals, are people still obsessed with these novels published in the 1810's? Jane Austen's morals are outdated, her worldview is sexist and classist, and her prose, by modern polished and streamlined standards, is terribly wordy and hard to follow. Her books have endured nonetheless, and it's not because they're romantic. The romance is just the sparkly pink icing on the cake. It's because they're witty, they're honest, and they strike a chord with young women and men facing their own shortcomings and confusing times. It's because people can identify with the characters' thoughts (misguided or not), feelings, and trials, even as they judge them and laugh at them.

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