Did Jane Austen Write Romance Novels?

Did Jane Austen Write Romance Novels?

Happy 4th of July to our United States readers! We realize July 4th is not a holiday everywhere. In fact, it’s not a holiday most places. A lot of us can agree, though (if we don’t have traumatized kitties and puppies!), that 4th of July firework displays are something amazing to see, and that it’s always great to have an excuse to enjoy a day with family and friends. Renata and I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy your favorite celebration.

That said, this blog post is about a different (better?) sort of fireworks. The sort that exist between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. There’s no denying them, but are they a byproduct of excellent writing, or the drive behind it? That’s the question Renata McMann is here to ask today: Did Jane Austen write romance novels?

– Summer

The website Pro Writing Aid (Click HERE to View) consulted various lists, including those from National Public Radio and Goodreads, to compile the top 30 romance novels of all time. Number one on their list? Pride and Prejudice, with Sense and Sensibility making an appearance at number five. The question addressed below is: Are they romance novels? And what about Jane Austen’s other novels?

To begin our discussion, we need a definition: (Click to View Definition on RWA)

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

– From the Website of Romance Writers of America

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice isn’t as obviously put in a category as one might think. The following statement by Jacqueline Marshall in a review of one of our books gave me the idea for this blog post.

“This story has too much of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy thinking about each other and not actually interacting. In the original Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen centered most of the story around the personal interactions of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

I wanted to see if this was true. Therefore, as a former math teacher, I calculated how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to scenes where Darcy and Elizabeth interact. I started[i] writing this blog post by tediously explaining my methodology, but here is the simplified version: I took word counts for the sections where Darcy and Elizabeth were both present and interacted. There were judgment calls. I did count Darcy’s letter, because, although he was not physically present, he was communicating with her. I did not count her thoughts after that, because he couldn’t hear them. I did count Darcy’s insulting Elizabeth at the Assembly, which included his conversation with Bingley, because she overheard it.

Their interactions were less than 20% of the novel. That doesn’t seem like “A Central Love Story.” But so much of the novel is about Elizabeth thinking or talking about Darcy. Darcy isn’t present for most of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, but even in his absence, he has a presence, although I didn’t count it in my tally.

Additionally, to a mild extent, readers’ reactions must be considered. Admittedly, the reactions are sometimes skewed by the adaptations, which have swoon worthy Darcys and less emphasis on the humor and social commentary than the romance. But, after due consideration, I believe Pride and Prejudice can be considered a romance novel.


On the other hand, Emma isn’t a romance novel. Although Jane Austen foreshadows Mr. Knightly having a romantic interest in Emma by his agreeing with Mrs. Weston that she is beautiful, I believe the first real hint that Mr. Knightly had a romantic interest in Emma was when they agreed to dance together:

“Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.” [Emma said.]

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.” [Knightly said.]

This comes more than halfway through the novel. Emma doesn’t realize that she loves Mr. Knightly two-thirds of the way through, when Harriet expresses an interest in him. Indeed, that realization comes much later. Not long after she realizes she loves him, he proposes.

Wikipedia says Emma is “…about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance.” Although it can be argued that Emma’s relationship with Mr. Knightly is important throughout the novel, so is her relationships with all sorts of people: her father, Harriet, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and even Miss Bates. Emma starts discussing her relationship with Miss Taylor. There simply isn’t enough romance to make Emma a romance novel.

Sense and Sensibility

The answer to weather Sense and Sensibility is a romance is not as obvious. There are two heroines in it, Elinor and Marianne. We are told about Elinor and Edward Ferrars falling in love but don’t see it. Throughout the novel, we see them interact, but Edward is trying to be faithful to Lucy Steele. At first, Elinor is wondering what is going on and then she is trying to help Edward do the right thing and keeping her rival from triumphing over her. Even the moving scene where she tells Edward about Colonel Brandon giving him the living, there is no spoken romance. The romantic scene between Edward and Elinor came nearly at the end of the novel, and it is mainly about a misunderstanding, maliciously created by Lucy.

Marianne’s romance with Willoughby is shown at length. We see the romance. We also see a happy ending, but by the definition given by Romance Writers of America, it’s with the wrong man. It is not with the romance and breakup that is shown so well. It was with a man who would make her happy. We see Brandon’s love for Marianne, and we see her gradual growth of her respect for him, but there isn’t a single romantic scene between the two of them.

The deep relationship between Elinor and Marianne is shown, but that isn’t romantic.

Sense and Sensibility is not a romance novel.

Mansfield Park

This is not a romance novel. Although pairings are considered, none qualify as a central love story with a happy ending. We see Edmund being kind to Fanny. We know she has been in love with him for a long time, but we see little of it. We never see him in love with her, nor do we see the romance between them.

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

These are both romance novels. In both cases, the heroine is in love with the hero for most of the novel, although it is not explicitly stated until late in Northanger Abbey. Both have the required happy ending. Although Persuasion does not show Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth falling in love and becoming engaged, it does show how much Anne regrets having broken the engagement. It also has a very romantic scene leading to the proposal, where Anne says, “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

Northanger Abbey emphases Catherine Morland’s belief that the world is like novels, but it is with the help of Henry Tilney that she learns it isn’t. Catherine is clearly attracted to him from the beginning, and there are many scenes with both.

Lady Susan

Lady Susan isn’t a novel. It’s too short. We will call it half a novel, and consider if it satisfies the other requirements.

Lady Susan shows no sign she loves anyone. We don’t even know if the story has a happy ending for the protagonist. Her daughter is too minor a character to consider as a player in the central story. When I first read Lady Susan, I was desperately trying to find a character to sympathize with. I’ve concluded that my best choice would be Reginald De Courcy, who ends up marrying Lady Susan’s daughter. Lady Susan is not a romance novel.

By including Lady Susan, we have, by half a novel, three romance novels and three and a half non-romance novels. The tally means Jane Austen wrote some romance novels but wasn’t primarily a romance writer. She wrote stories containing romance, humor and satire, with keen insights into the human condition.

Do you agree with my conclusions? If not, please explain.


[i] Like many writers, I throw out a lot of bad writing. You don’t want to read it.

18 Responses to Did Jane Austen Write Romance Novels?

  1. I love this analysis of Austen’s work. Wow! It is way too early in the morning for me to be thinking this in dept. LOL! This was really interesting. I liked that definition of what constitutes a love story… focus of a central love story with a happy ending. I will think about that now as I read a story. Oh, my head… I need more coffee.

  2. I agree completely with your findings. Very well put I thought. Once, when reading P&P, someone asked me, is that a romance? I floundered and couldn’t really answer the question. Now I know I’m not alone in these thoughts. Great post.
    Happy 4th to all who celebrate!!

  3. Happy 4th, and thanks for this very interesting analysis! I think the adaptations have pushed the way they’re viewed more into romance novels, which is a shame because while they have wonderful romances in them, they are so much more. I do wonder if this is why their appeal has become less universal than it has been before (I think, for example, of soldiers reading them in the trenches in WWI, while today they tend to be associated more with a female readership).

  4. First, I am wishing all a Happy 4th of July.

    Austen obviously writes from what she knew. I believe she was a great observer of the human condition. Her books were “contemporary” novels, based on the morals and practice of those in the gentry. As women were expected to marry, for they had no other real options (again those of the gentry and aristocracy), marriage plays a prominent place in Austen’s novels. As to “romance,” we must temper our estimations, for those of the Regency were just experiencing romance novels and Gothics, while we have been fed a steady dose of “sugary love stories.”

    BTW, I did a similar post back in 2017 over on my blog, but I was speaking of whether Pride and Prejudice was a “chick flic.” https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/05/02/jane-austen-and-the-romance-novel-2/

    • Jane Austen definitely wrote what she knew, and she knew it very well.

      Referring to your blog post, I believe Emma fits into the category of chick lit better than any other novel written by Jane Austen.

      • I would agree about “Emma.” Such is likely why it translated so easily to the film “Clueless.”
        I always say that writing a contemporary P&P (that sticks very much to the original plot) is difficult because the stigma of an elopement in modern times does not play the same way as during the Regency. In my one contemporary, I had Wickham being a fast talking con man that convinces Lydia to pose for some sexy pics, which he tries to sell to Darcy, so Darcy can protect Elizabeth’s family. It is difficult to come up with a reasonable situation that would “ruin” a family and Lydia’s other sisters. With social media, such pics would be all over Instagram and the like. Of course, I wrote the book back in 2010 – not as bad then as it is now.

        • “Clueless” did an excellent job of moving “Emma” to the modern world.

          Lydia posing for sexy pics is a much better solution in modern society than running off without being married.

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