We Are All Fools in Love
January 10, 2022 / Raishma Kazi
If the new normal for intimacy is increasingly leaning towards sex and physical romance, why is Jane Austen’s portrayal of love so consistently adored?
It is said that love is the universal language. Our expectations and assumptions about love and intimacy are molded through film, literature, and art. Love is something we are taught to expect, give, and understand. It’s kissing in the rain and dancing in the street. It’s sex and desire and primal instinct. Love is everywhere. It’s in what we watch, read, and experience. People pick and choose their depictions of love, their models for what type of intimacy they want, and few authors are as universally appreciated for their depictions of romance as Jane Austen. Austen’s six books, four of which were published anonymously, garnered the attention of the Regency-era public for their intimate view of life and relationships. For centuries, they’ve been the inspiration behind a plethora of media and still stand as honest portrayals of the human experience.
All of Austen’s novels tackle themes of morality, gender, social and economic politics, and society. Her plots generally focus on her heroines coming to see themselves more clearly, and, as a result, becoming better and more moral individuals. The romance elements of Austen novels, despite being the books’ wide-ranging “claim to fame,” follow her more socially conscious narratives, but never lead any of the stories in their entirety.
Despite the economic requisites and societal pressures placed on young women in the Regency era to marry, exemplified through characters like Charlotte Lucas or Mary Crawford, Austen is an advocate for companionate marriage, or marrying for love. In Sense and Sensibility, readers see Marianne Dashwood fawn over John Willoughby, ultimately getting betrayed and heartbroken before realizing her true affections lie with Colonel Brandon. Pride and Prejudice introduces Austen’s popular pairing of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Emma focuses on the youthful love affair between Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley. All of these relationships are built on conversation and trust, with romantic interest developing through tension and chemistry. No lovers ever kiss in Austen’s works. They barely touch each other. Yet their love and passion radiates so profoundly that their stories continue to be shared centuries after their creation.
Ironically, Jane Austen never had a love story like the ones she wrote about. She’d been courted, proposed to, but never married. Some scholars say she might not have even been kissed, which could be the reason why she never allows her characters to experience such a moment themselves. Austen observed the lives around her. Because of her anonymity during the publishing of her work, she was allowed to be honest. She wrote what she saw, commenting on the nature of courtship and marriage from the most obscure couples that lived in the village to the high-profile relationships of aristocrats. During the original publications of Austen’s books, it was almost a game for noblemen and women to figure out whom this unknown writer was discussing in their novels, but time has shown that Austen’s descriptions of people weren’t necessarily as specific as those of her era believed and could be relatable to wider ranging audiences.
In the last 30 years, a consistent stream of Austen-inspired content has made its way onto screens all across the world. While some liberties are taken with the presentation of Austen’s novels — compare, for example, the 2009 miniseries adaptation of Emma to the modernized version of the story told in the 1995 movie Clueless — the core narratives present in her stories are always maintained, including romantic subplots.
What’s more romantic than Colonel Brandon carrying home a sick Marianne in 1996’s Sense and Sensibility, or when Edmund chooses Fanny over Mary in 1999’s Mansfield Park? One of the most adored scenes in all of cinema is from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, when Mr. Darcy holds Elizabeth’s hand as he helps her into her carriage. Something noticeably missing from all of these scenes — all of these movies, in fact — are implications of sexual involvement. If audiences are lucky, they may see a kiss between romantic interests, but there’s no nudity in Jane Austen’s work, no impropriety, and no sex.
In the same 30 years that Austen adaptations have risen to prominence, so has the sexual nature of content in the media. Romance is when a man grabs a woman to kiss her before she leaves, or passionate sexual encounters after massive fights. Romance is fire and sex and animalistic desire. Films like 1999’s Cruel Intentions and the 50 Shades of Grey franchise exemplify the sex-focused and nudity-heavy content that’s dominated popular culture in recent decades. The rise of dating apps like Tinder have facilitated a rise in casual hook-up culture. Similarly, the growth of platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and OnlyFans, and communities within each have allowed for more sexual content to be made available to wider audiences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does beg the question: If the new normal for intimacy is increasingly leaning towards sex and physical romance, why is Jane Austen’s portrayal of love so consistently adored? How has her work maintained its integrity through two centuries of changing standards for relationships?
As different as times are in comparison to the 19th century, some things in human interaction will always remain the same. Romance in Austen’s time can be seen if a man and woman are walking side by side, sharing pleasantries away from their supervisors. On social media today, some of the most gushed over and shared videos are those of boys and girls walking next to each other, nervous to hold the other's hand. If a boy liked you in the Regency era, he would have to go through a courting process just to ask for your hand to dance. If a boy likes you today, he may have to go through extensive exchanges just to get your phone number. The attention to these small gestures is uniquely feminine, and these moments are thus rarely presented in the media unless done through the eyes of a woman. Women are predominantly attracted to seeing these interactions in popular culture, women facilitate the inclusion of these details in the media, women ensure stories like the ones written by Austen continue to be shared.
The beauty of Jane Austen is in the details. Her focus on the simple, overlooked moments of normal life is what penetrates modern audiences. In everyday life, we don’t see the closed-door activities of couples around us, and neither do we see so in Austen. We see the build-up of intimacy, the flirting, the tension. These are the things that create love. Austen’s work has always been a reflection of ordinary people. Her honesty perseveres through the bindings of her books, seeing her audience exactly as they are.
While Jane Austen never had her own love story, she witnessed and understood the truth about love around her. Maybe today, love is sex and desire. But it’s also nervousness and tension, anxiety and heartache. It’s courting a woman to dance and being scared to hold each other’s hand. It’s helping a girl into a carriage and taking care of each other through sickness. It’s fleeting glances, whispers, and touches. It’s the small, undiscussed fragments of the human experience. It’s not always the story — sometimes, it’s the subplots.
Jane Austen’s work has maintained its place both in history and the hearts of audiences for centuries for these reasons. Female audiences especially flock towards her portrayal of love time and time again because of how she presents these widely understood emotions to the world. Love is the universal language, and Austen speaks it fluently. Whether we meet Austen through the pages of her books or adaptations on screen, whether we choose to define ourselves as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy or Cher Horowitz and Josh Lucas, Jane Austen reminds us about the reality of our existence: “We are all fools in love.”
by: Raishma Kazi
layout: Grace Davila