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.
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.
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.
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?