Although I’m certainly not the first to make such a confession, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little nervous. Attitudes are changing, but too many still see romance novels as the antithesis of great literature (you know, the stuff English professors are supposed to like). The truth is, romance novels were my gateway to the classics, and I eventually made my academic home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature for many of the same reasons I love romance: it’s a place where novels matter, women writers take the lead, and happy endings are nothing to be ashamed of.
Jane Austen’s novels, in particular, gave me a cover story, a way to talk about love, marriage, and happily ever afters without getting the side-eye from my colleagues. Pride and Prejudice gave all of us a model for the perfect romantic plot: a smart, spunky heroine brings a wealthy, arrogant hero to his knees. Today, I’m sharing three more Austen-inspired insights that apply no matter what genre of romance you read or write.
- Consent is sexy. When Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, he’s certain “no” means “yes.” John Thorpe all but abducts Catherine Morland to show off his, er, gig. Even Mr. Darcy flubs this one. No matter how good it sounds, if you say “you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” and the answer is, “Um, I’d rather you didn’t,” you should listen.
- Don’t say ‘yes’ to the dress. Whether you call it “dress porn” or “costume drama,” historical romance in particular likes to wax exuberant over the clothes. Austen’s novels, by contrast, are pretty thin on those details. Instead, her books teach us to look beyond the dashing uniform, the beautiful ball gown, even the muddy petticoat, to see the real person beneath. Don’t trust first impressions.
- Sisterhood is powerful. Austen had an exceptionally close relationship to her only sister, Cassandra. Maybe that’s the reason she’s so good at reminding us that women don’t have to be rivals. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are polar opposite personalities, but they fight for each other’s happiness. The best romance novels work the same way. The world is a better place when women look out for one another.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen describes female-authored, woman-centered novels as works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Who wouldn’t be proud to be part of that tradition?
And as it turned out, once I “came clean” about my romance writing, my colleagues have been nothing but supportive.
Susanna Craig’s début historical romance, To Kiss a Thief will be released on 16th August 2016 by Lyrical Press.