Here in the US, Public Television has been airing “A Very British Romance,” narrated by scholar and writer Lucy Worsley. If you have never seen anything with Ms. Worsley in it, you’re in for a real treat. Worsley makes learning about literature and history fun and even amusing as she dresses in the period costume of her topics and becomes part of the story.
In “A Very British Romance,” Worsley explores the history of romance and what she calls an explanation of “forces that shape our very British happily ever after,” and how our feelings about love and marriage are affected by social, political and cultural ideas.
She begins discussing the history of the British romance novel. And in her opinion, that begins with the epistolary novel “Pamela,” by Samuel Richardson. Worsley calls Richardson “The fairy godfather of the British Romance novel.” At the time he wrote the novel, Richardson was a wealthy London printer in his 50s. According to Worsley, Pamela was based on a letter in one of the letter writing manuals written and printed by Richardson.
In this novel, a young servant named Pamela is pursued by Mr. B., her employer. The story is told in Pamela’s letters to her parents. After Mr. B. relentlessly pursues Pamela against her will, he reads the letters she wrote to her parents, and realizes he has been wrong, and that he is truly in love with her. They marry and live happily ever after.
“Pamela” was a sensation. There was Pamela merchandise such as cups and fans. In many communities, where the story was read in newspapers, people went crazy when they read the ending. They went to local churches, ringing the bells in celebration of Pamela’s marriage to Mr. B.
One of the most groundbreaking things about Richardson’s “Pamela,” is her financial situation. In a time when the majority of women were not provided for by their husbands, Mr. B. made sure if he were to pass away, his wife would be protected with her own money, which was nearly unheard of in Georgian England.
Samuel Richardson was one of Austen’s favorite novelists. More than likely, Austen also read Richardson’s “Clarisa” too. In this novel, Clarissa Harlowe is a young woman her time. Loving and sensitive, she epitomes the current fad of sensibility. Worsley describes the “cult” of sensibility as glamorized romance that is punctuated with extreme physical emotion. Blushing, weeping, and trembling with emotion when it came to love was all the fashion.
A cautionary tale at its core, Clarissa is the story of a young girl who will not marry a man she doesn’t love as her parents wish her to. Because of this, she becomes embroiled with a rake who compromises her virtue and ruins her life. In “Clarissa” Richardson seeks to show the merits of sensibility as well as its negatives aspects. Should Clarissa have obeyed her parents and played it safe or followed her heart and pay the ultimate price? Richardson leaves it for the reader to decide.
Both of Richardson’s novels seem to have influenced Austen’s first published novel according to Worsley, and this writer thinks she could be correct in that assumption. Most of us know the story of “Sense and Sensibility,” a tale of two sisters; one is Elinor, a girl of practicality and sense, the other is Marianne, who is filled with notions of the age; she is a romantic who loves Cowper’s poetry, is prone to melancholia and fits of weeping, They both find love; Elinor falls for Edward, but keeps her feelings to herself, concerned about protocol and reputation, and the marriage does not take place until the time is right. Marianne falls hard for John Willoughby, and the two have a very public, passionate romance. But passions cool when he loses his inheritance and marries a rich heiress. After that, and an illness that nearly takes her life, Marianne realizes sense over sensibility is best, and marries Colonel Brandon, and older man who can take care of her.
Even so, Worsley reminds us that while Austen seems to advocate sense over sensibility, she personally didn’t abide by this rule. Case in point is her one day engagement to the wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither. Austen wrote that “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.” Like Richardson’s “Clarissa,” she would not marry a man she didn’t love. And while the consequences for Austen were less drastic for her than for Richardson’s character, she still paid a price for her lack of “sense,” in that she was financially dependent on her family for the rest of her life. But if nothing else, I think the sense vs. sensibility issue in these 18th century novels made women aware they had choices in life, and Richardson and Austen’s novels helped bring them to whatever conclusion was right for them.
Anyway, if you can, don’t miss Lucy Worsley’s series on PBS. She also discusses romance in the Victorian era, and the influence of such writers as the Brontes. Happy viewing!!