A Jane Austen Challenge

There have been a lot of fun posts on this blog about the many wonderful movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. Personally, I love watching her stories come to life on the big and small screens.

One reason I’m glad for those adaptations is that they attract new readers to Jane Austen’s novels. Without them, we Janeites would have a much more difficult time explaining to someone who has never read her books what Jane Austen’s stories are about.

After all, Jane didn’t really write romance novels—not by our modern standards, anyway. In her books, you won’t catch Mr. Darcy kissing Elizabeth Bennet. Even that scoundrel John Willoughby didn’t kiss Marianne Dashwood on the lips; he didn’t even kiss her hand (although he did steal a lock of her hair and kiss it).

So, if Jane Austen didn’t write romances, what did she write?

Sometimes it’s easier to tell someone what Jane Austen’s books are not, instead of what they are. For example, in Jane’s books . . .

No one has a great adventure.

There are no revolutions or battles.

No one starves.

There are no plots or sub-plots that reflect current events.

There are no cruel husbands or insane wives.

No one dies.

There are no characters from foreign countries.

No one rails against changes in society (although one character rails against the ill effects of open windows).

No bodies are discovered.

The bodies pile up in the film “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” but no bodies appeared in Jane Austen’s original novel.

No detective suddenly appears to solve a mystery.

No one makes a death-bed confession.

Rogues, scoundrels, and rascals are not punished for their misdeeds.

Husbands and wives are faithful (with one exception in Mansfield Park).

Characters who become widowed stay widowed (again, with one exception in Lady Susan).

No weddings take place, although each book ends with at least one marriage.

And while her books end happily for the hero and heroine, Jane Austen never describes her characters’ awakened hormones or romantic passions.

Emma and Mr. Knightley engage in a public display of affection in the 1996 film, “Emma.”]

Jane’s novels don’t fit into any of our neat, modern-day categories. They’re not thrillers or mystery novels. And they’re definitely not chick-lit!

Are they romances? Maybe. I tend to describe Jane Austen’s novels as more romantic than “romance-novel-ish.” That’s why she didn’t have to write about Elizabeth and Darcy’s first kiss; instead, Jane Austen quietly wove a story about characters whose actions were so captivating and romantic, I can imagine Darcy and Lizzy’s first kiss for myself; I don’t need to read about it on the page.

The 1995 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice ended with Elizabeth and Darcy kissing.

But telling an Austen newbie that her books are romantic in a non-romance-novel way is a hard sell, not to mention a bit confusing!

So, what is the best way to describe a Jane Austen novel? I’d love to know how you handle that challenge!

What’s the best way to describe Jane Austen’s books to someone who has never read them before?


18 Responses to A Jane Austen Challenge

    • That’s my quandary, too. Sometimes I think it’s easy to say her novels were the “original Regency romances,” but I don’t think saying so does her justice.

  1. Great post and it gives us a lot to consider. I have seen all those movies except Zombies and I simply refuse to watch it. Too bad they didn’t have the budget to make 2 films while they had all those marvelous actors, costumes, and the historical locations. I would love to see it as a regular Austen film. Oh well. I’m glad Austen didn’t write about the darker side of society… the underbelly so to speak. She did write scandals, Colonel Brandon’s ward, Mrs. Rushworth, Lydia, etc.

    • I agree with you on the zombie thing, J.W. I’ve watched the movie, but only because the costumes, locations, and sets are so wonderful and inspiring; but I’m really turned off by the gore and plot.

  2. Interesting post, Nancy. Now you’ve got me thinking about why Jane Austen didn’t include a kiss in any of her books. Was she never romantically kissed? Personally I classify Austen’s writings as Regency romance of the best kind: romantic and clean. Something that’s hard to find sometimes. 🙂

    • Romantic and clean romances are my favorite kind, Gianna! I don’t wonder why Jane Austen didn’t include a kiss in her books, but I often wish she had described a wedding or two. 🙂

  3. You know, I was just talking about what makes a story a romance with someone this week 🙂 , and personally, I would say that Jane Austen’s novels can be classified as romances (except for maybe Lady Susan 😉 She’s just a different kettle of fish) because each has a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (the two qualifiers that Romance Writers of America give for classifying work as a romance).

    In other words, a couple overcomes “stuff,” like problematic family members, broken engagements, secret engagements, bungled matchmaking, and so on, and ends up with unconditional love. I would say that all of Jane’s novels do this. I would also say that if you were to removed the love story the plot of the novel would fall apart. For instance, why is it important to the story that Wickham tells lies about Darcy and Elizabeth believes them? It’s not unless those lies are going to lead to a refused proposal in a romance or a false accusation or testimony in a court case in a crime novel. Each of the plot details in Jane’s novels build toward a dark moment when it feels like the hero and heroine are not going to be together. That, to me, is classic romance story telling.

    Now, she does not include things like kisses and introspection about how one or another character desires the other, but the lack of direct recital of such items does not disqualify the book from classification as a romance. As we know, heat level in romances can range from maybe just a kiss to burn the forest down. I think that there is awakenings and even some desires that are indirectly hinted at. Emma realizes that she does not love Frank at one point and then later feels the overwhelming emotion of realizing she might have lost the one man she does love. Elizabeth realizes that Darcy is the best man in the world. And Edmund discovers that fair eyes might be better than dark eyes. These are all moments of realization of love but are in an understated fashion compared to how we do things today. But then, she was writing about real life in her time in a way that would have been acceptable to her society — although I would not say there were not places where kisses could have happened. (What was Marianne doing with Willoughby when they were gone for an afternoon? How does a man who has just been accepted express his delight? Were Emma and Knightley only talking during their time in the garden?)

    There is likely a lot more that I could say about things such as the fact that romances can have many types of themes — friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, coming of age, second chances, etc 😀 (I enjoy discussing things like this), but I’ll stop now and return to my Saturday to-do list. Thanks for posing the question, Nancy. It can be fun to think about and discuss these things.

  4. I would probably say they are books written through the eyes of a woman who lived in those times and experienced things in those times.

  5. A snapshot into another time an place told by a woman who actually lived there and beautifully wrote about what she knew and saw.

  6. I remember reading somewhere that Pride and Prejudice is the original romance novel, with the brooding hero and boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. I am with you, I love all the adaptations. Never met a Darcy I didn’t fall in love with. Lovely post.

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