Did Jane Austen write romances?
It’s a more complicated question than it may appear on the surface.
In some ways it is unfair to ask this question of Austen. “Romance” as we know it is a relatively recent genre and was not considered a separate category in Austen’s time. However, the “romantic” genre of literature was in full flourish, as exemplified by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and other poets who privileged expression of internal thoughts and imagination, valued connection with the natural world, and rejected social convention and industrialization. Elements of this kind of romanticism can also be seen in novels that Austen read, like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, etc.
Literary scholars tend to see Austen as eschewing romanticism in favor of advocating for rationalism and common sense over heedless emotion and complete rejection of social convention. But, of course, the case is not so clean cut. In Northanger Abbey, Austen makes fun of Catherine’s flights of fancy brought on by excessive novel reading, but she also defends novel reading vociferously. And elements of romanticism crop up in her novels even if we might not say they were romantic in genre.
So where does this leave Austen vis-à-vis romance? The Romance Writers of America says a romance must contain two elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Certainly, all of Austen’s books meet the second criterion. They all end happily and satisfactorily, at least regarding the main characters. So, the question is: how well do her books meet the first criterion: a central love story? That a is a much harder question to answer and it varies according to each book.
In Northanger Abbey, the love story is central. Catherine likes Tilney from the beginning, and the question of whether they will get together is the primary source of suspense. I would say this is also true of Persuasion. It is true to a lesser extent in Pride and Prejudice and Elinor’s story in Sense and Sensibility. In those stories the primary romance protagonists spend far less time together and today we tend to see spending time together as an essential part of getting to know each other and forming a romantic attachment. But in P&P and S&S the question of whether the heroine will marry the hero is still the primary driver of the plot.
I do not believe that is true for Mansfield Park or Marianne’s story in S&S. (I won’t discuss Emma; it’s been a while since I read it). In my most recent re-reading of Mansfield Park, I was struck by the extent to which Edmund and Fanny’s marriage was tacked on as an afterthought. While the question of whether Edmund would marry Mary Crawford and if Fanny would marry Henry Crawford occupies huge swaths of the plot, the amount of time Edmund and Fanny spend alone together is very limited, and they never discuss anything remotely romantic. My copy of Mansfield Park is 851 pages long and their marriage first comes up on page 844. The narrator mentions in a very offhand way, saying that she will not tell the reader the exact date or time of the proposal but leave it up to the reader’s imagination. I don’t know how Austen could have been more direct in telling us that the story we just read wasn’t really about Fanny and Edmund’s romance; their marriage just ties up a loose end and guarantees the happiness of the two most deserving characters in the book. In some ways it is the opposite of Northanger Abbey.
Marianne’s romance with Colonel Brandon is similar. Their marriage is mentioned at the end of the book, but their romance is not really described. The narrator notes they waited a couple of years to marry until Marianne was older. While Marianne’s romantic attachment to Willoughby has been an important driver of the plot, her relationship with Brandon happens mostly offstage. And their marriage simply gives a happy ending to deserving characters.
Here I want to make it clear that I am speaking specifically about Austen’s books and not any kind of adaptation. There are some wonderful (and not so wonderful) movie adaptations of her novels which all tend to emphasize the romance in the stories. But, I would argue, this is imposing a modern sensibility on Austen. Today’s adapters and the audiences are primed for romance, so that is what we notice and cherish most about Austen’s work.
However, I’m not sure that Austen herself would have regarded romance as one of the most important elements (or maybe she would have, there’s no way to know). But she certainly would not have thought of her books as romances the same way we think about books by Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, or Eloisa James. And that, I would argue, is one of Austen’s strengths. I have nothing against romance (it’s the primary genre I read and write), but because Austen was focused on so many other elements of storytelling she created very rich worlds that gave us so much fodder for various re-imaginings of her stories. Ironically most of these re-imaginings are romances. And I think that’s okay.
Although I think Austen would be startled by some of the variations on her stories, she would also be flattered and amazed. I believe she would also recognize that people read romance because they want more hope, optimism and love in their lives. Certainly her novels offer those qualities in abundance.