A have an embarrassing confession to make. I haven’t read a single Jane Austen novel. Ever. I have no logical explanation. It’s not that I don’t read romance. I do read romance, a lot of it. And it is certainly not that I have anything against 19th century English literature. I don’t. I love Dickens and Hardy. And I’ve read Jane Eyre three times, so it’s not anything against women writers of 19th century England, either. It’s a mystery and it shall remain a mystery but t least I am now familiar with the material after I binged watched every adaptation of an Austen novel I could find.
It all started innocently enough. I was re-watching The Vicar of Dibley and at the end of it I decided I needed more Richard Armitage ogling time. So I watched North and South. By the end of it I was, perhaps understandably for those who have watched it, in the right mood for a full binge on stories about gentle courtships — complete with some arguments and major side drama — that fail to completely hide the volcanic emotions raging under the smooth surface of everything.
I followed on North and South North with Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson one), Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth one), and Persuasion. I’m forgoing Emma because I have a vague memory that I have seen it, not that I remember anything, because I don’t trust modern adaptations and I can’t watch Gwyneth Paltrow, and because I think I overdosed on the 19th century romance.
I’m having urges to speak in “I shall nots” and “How peculiars”, wear flowing diaphanous gowns, and have gentlemen with sideburns try to win my favour by either antagonising me verbally or leaving for the West Indies after I reject them unthinkingly. This is confusing so I’ve put a stop to the binge. I do come out of it with some valuable lessons, however.
First, Jane Austen was a genius. I will emphatically avoid discussing her independent women at a time when independence was frowned upon because I’m sure there are thousands of pages dedicated to that aspect of her work. She was a genius for creating the template of every single romantic comedy ever. The simple things are the most genius ones. Just like the hero’s journey, the romantic story template is simple but powerful: the intrigue, the buildup of tension (add certain amount of tense stares) and the release with the happily ever after.
Second, binge watching romantic films is unexpectedly refreshing. My initial motivation was ogling but when that was done I kept on watching these — despite the abundance of sideburns — and enjoying them. A big part of the reason I enjoyed them was that they invariably have happy endings so I didn’t have to worry about the characters.
I needed happy endings. I generally like them better over unhappy ones because it’s often difficult for authors and filmmakers to make those convincing. Besides, there is more than sufficient amounts of drama in real life. I don’t need fictional drama, too. Which is why it was hilarious when a close friend suggested I continue with all the Hardy adaptations since I was in a 19th century mood. I told her I wanted romance, not all the tragedy the world has known condensed into two hours of screen time with me crying my eyes out at the end. Okay, except Far from the Madding Crowd. Which I have already seen.
Third and last, I’ll never grow out of romance. At this point, there is no chance I will ever stop liking these soppy stories. Which is totally okay since I haven’t made it my purpose in life to outgrow romantic stories. I thought it may have happened naturally, the way you outgrow (some) children’s books. But no. And I haven’t outgrown my favourite children’s books, either, so it’s not surprising, really.
It’s the purity of the message. There’s little irony in these romantic stories and even less sarcasm, always on the part of some bad character. The love between the main characters is of the purest, lifelong kind, and they also care about the poor and about justice. Except Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Thornton. He was a lot more realistic than the rest of them. Which reminds me: who cares about realism?
We all know most marriages in that era were arranged and probably a lot were unhappy. The rest of the people just got used to each other, I suppose. Real life wasn’t a romantic story and even when it was, the romance likely wore off soon after real life settled in because people hadn’t lived together before they married and had yet to get to know each other.
Real life was, and still often is, ugly. Which is why romantic comedies — and even non-comedy romances — exist. And if it wasn’t for Jane Austen and her fellow writers of the times, we may never have has the pleasure of enjoying these. Basically if we didn’t have Sense and Sensibility we wouldn’t have Friends. Now that’s a horrible thought.