Four major points within the larger history of the novel are significant to the evolution of the “romance novel.” The first is the career of Jane Austen. Born on the cusp of the movement towards affective individualism, Austen wrote during a time when women were faced with a paradox. Once a woman married, unless stated within a legal document, her husband gained complete control of her person and her proprietary assets., She maintained her independence if she remained unmarried or was widowed, but that was really only beneficial if she was wealthy. Without the money to support herself, a woman would need a job and those were few and far between.
Because of the limited social, political, and financial options available for women, the choice of a spouse was of the utmost importance. However, prior to the eighteenth century, women had little say in the matter. According to Regis,
The romance novel emerges as a dominant form of the English novel just as the expectations surrounding the choice of husband shifted. Affective individualism added to the choice a desire for liberty and the shift from older forms of union to companionate marriage added a requirement that the wife- and husband-to-be love each other (Regis 58).
Austen is one of the first authors to recognize this shift and transform it into a successful genre. Using different forms of the alpha hero and alpha heroine, Austen engages in a dialogue with the newly popular “companionate marriage” and offers an illustration of the pitfalls and successes available within this new form.
While all of Austen’s canonical novels engage with the ideas of agency and the companionate marriage, I want to primarily focus on the heroes and heroines of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion as they show the most distinctive explorations of the agency available to both men and women of the middle class during Austen’s time. Moving chronologically, the first couple that must be examined is Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is often held up as one of the premiere romance novels, and for good reason. Elizabeth Bennett is a representative of the problems facing women of the slightly impoverished gentry of the time. Practically speaking, she and all of her sisters must find suitable husbands in order to remain financially solvent because their father’s estate is entailed. However, being an educated, intelligent woman of the new nineteenth century, Elizabeth refuses to “settle” for the type of marriage that would benefit her family, but leave her miserable.
As this new “alpha heroine,” Austen works to establish Elizabeth as a different type of woman than any other female in the novel. She speaks her mind, both to other women and men, and does so in a rational, intelligent manner. Caroline Bingley makes a very pointed dig at Elizabeth, saying that she “‘is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art’”(Austen Pride 423). This comment, made during Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield, serves as an illustration of how Elizabeth is perceived by women who are perfectly content with the social structure that was still dominant during this time period. Women who expressed opinions and chose unconventional paths provided by the new concept of affective individualism were viewed as “other” or “unattractive” or “paltry.” Rather than taking the traditional stance, Austen portrays women of the old order as petty, both through Caroline and through Lady Catherine, who almost seems to be Caroline’s much older double. Both take every opportunity to belittle Elizabeth and her unusual life choices, but each is left lacking her own personal goals while Elizabeth simultaneously achieves something above her own expectations. Above all else that challenges these two women, Elizabeth exerts agency. She chooses to refuse not one but two marriage proposals in spite of social expectations. By expressing her free will, Elizabeth places herself as a member of the new social order slowly taking form within the middle class, threatening to subsume the old Burkean ways.
Many critics argue that Darcy represents the Burkean ideals about hierarchy and class expectations. For most of the novel, they would be correct. Even his first proposal to Elizabeth is full of Burkean objections to his decision to step into the realm of affective individualism. Rather than providing detail through dialogue, Austen describes proposal from Elizabeth’s perspective;
he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority–of its being a degradation–of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit (Austen Pride 2208).
Every negative aspect of his proposal stems from Burkean conceptions of what should recommend a match leading up to this point in history. Family, social station these are what Darcy chooses to highlight in his proposal, rather than any affection he might have for Elizabeth at this point in the narrative. In a way, this novel shows Darcy’s movement from a Burkean into the new “alpha” hero who will choose his heroine because of her differences, rather than in spite of them, and because he possesses a genuine affection for her.
As a couple, Elizabeth and Darcy present challenges to each other not only socially, but personally as well. Elizabeth as a person unsettles Darcy from his well-constructed life. Elizabeth forces him to redefine himself just as much as she must redefine herself. Feminist critics of the romance novel often state that their biggest problem is that it perpetuates the idea that a woman should lose herself in her husband. The difference between a romance novel and a great romance novel such as Pride and Prejudice is in the fact that there is a mutual alteration. In this novel in particular, we see evidence of what romance novelists identify as the “taming” of the hero. In his final proposal, Darcy says “ ‘You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’”(Austen Pride 4356). The words Austen puts in Darcy’s mouth here are not what one would expect for the stereotypical romance hero. The “alpha hero” and “alpha heroine” have spent a good deal of the novel battling for their place within society and have now found a way for both personalities to capitulate into one shared space of the companionate marriage.
With Emma, published in 1815, two years after Pride and Prejudice, Austen took a different approach to affective individualism and the agency it allows women. Unlike any other Austen heroine, Emma is from a wealthy family with seemingly no worries in regards to entailment or financial problems. Indeed, the situation for the main couple in Emma is almost so idyllic that marriage seems wholly unnecessary. So why write the book? Emma is a novel based entirely on choices and the control or manipulation of these choices. Emma Woodhouse tries very hard to influence the agency available to others to suit her own whims, primarily because she has no need to exert her own matrimonial agency.
When questioned about whether or not she fears being an “old maid”, Emma brushes the idea aside.
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else” (Austen Emma 1103).
Here Austen addresses one of the main arguments supporting affective individualism. A woman of good fortune did not need to marry, unless it were for dynastic purposes. With the rise of affective individualism, the notion of dynastic marriage became less important. Men might want to marry Emma for her beauty or her money, but she didn’t have to marry. Given her father’s apathy towards her behavior in general, Emma could choose to do whatever she wanted. However, it is important to remember when looking at this speech is that Austen herself was a “poor old maid.” Unlike Miss Bates, she found a way to support herself and exert her own agency over the course of her life and that of her mother and sister.
With this in mind, we then must look at why this is a novel about companionate marriage. Knightley is firmly rooted, like Darcy, as an independent male. There is continual reference to him and his relationship with his property, Donwell Abbey, positioning Knightley as a Burkean character. Handler and Segal explain that during this time “The ideal of independence is epitomized by the gentleman of landed prominence. Lands materiality and naturalness are taken as signs of its permanence and by extension, of the permanence of the patriline associated with the land” (Handler/Segal 695). With Emma, Austen creates a very similar situation between her and Hartfield by essentially putting Emma in charge of the estate. She provides Emma with this economic independence that is usually associated with the male, but explains it in female situations as seen in the conversation with Harriet, thus creating an alternative to the purely Burkean for both Emma and Knightley. By making both of these characters financially and socially independent, Austen sets up a scenario that illustrates an ideal sort of companionate marriage, born out of the availability of female agency that was not readily accessible by most women of this time period, as her other heroines show. Emma doesn’t have any reason to marry Knightley except that she loves him and chooses to spend her life with him.
The agency for females expressed in Persuasion is very similar to that of Pride and Prejudice. Anne Elliot exerts her own free will in her refusal of marriage proposals, whether from being persuaded out of them, such as Captain Wentworth’s first proposal, or because she does not believe they are the best match for her, as is the case with Charles Musgrove and William Elliot. Her decision to marry Wentworth at the end of the novel is the ultimate act of agency for her, choosing to make a companionate match with the man she loves. As Regis explains, “The ending isolates them in their mutual choice, while it inserts the new union based on that choice back into society which includes the characters who embodied the barrier” (Regis 82). Both Anne and Wentworth are still the same people, from the same situations, after their engagement. The difference is that they are now united to face their challenges rather than struggling through them separately.
The uniqueness in Persuasion stems from the representation of male affective individualism. Class structures were extremely rigid during this time, especially regarding prejudices about people who earned money rather than inheriting it. Wentworth is an example of the type of merit-based hierarchy Wollstonecraft argued for. He “distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune” (Austen Persuasion 360). Part of the new middle class, forming because of ideology such as affective individualism, was based off of men — whether sailors, soldiers, or merchants — earning fortunes equal or greater to that of the gentry and the aristocracy. Over the first half of the century, money or blood slowly became a deciding factor to an advantageous match rather than money and blood. Hints of this can be seen in Pride and Prejudice, but Austen truly comes to terms with the reality of this shift in marital ideology by the time she writes Persuasion.
At the time of Austen’s writing, men who earned money were still seen as members of a lower order. When discussing a possible tenant for Kellynch with his solicitor, Sir Walter “observed sarcastically—‘There are few among the gentlemen of the navy, I imagine, who would not be surprised to find themselves in a house of this description’” (Austen Persuasion 212). Even though his refusal to give up any of the trappings of his class for the sake of financial solvency, Sir Walter looks down upon a man who has worked his way up through the ranks to earn a place of honor. Sir Walter and the rest of Anne’s family position themselves very much in a similar sphere as Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine in their adherence to the old ways of thinking. Lady Russell’s acceptance of him at the end of the novel because of his companionate marriage with Anne acts as a representation of the grudging acceptance growing within the culture of the time for men who worked for a living rather than acting as idle dandies. In Sense and Sensibility, we see the damage done by men without employment. Willoughby seduces Marianne out of both attraction and idleness. Edward Ferrars, because he lacks employment, forms a superficial attachment to Lucy Steele that threatens to trap him in a marriage based off of duty rather than love. The relationship between Captain Wentworth and Anne shows that with work and time, love provides a superior alternative to a marriage of duty.
Wentworth is a hero who, rather than forcing the heroine to change, changes to fit with her to form a marriage that brings out the best in both of them. According to Walzer, “If Anne is mistakenly perceived as the epitome of womanly weakness—someone who doesn’t matter—Wentworth is presented as the avatar of masculine will, a naval officer who shapes life by the force of his decision and action” (Walzer 701). Wentworth is this new form of “alpha hero” that is developing within the culture and literature. Austen utilizes soldiers and naval men in nearly every one of her novels, but Captain Wentworth stands out as the first to be the primary hero and he does so in a powerful way. He knows what he wants and does his best to make it apparent to those around him. But, as a naval man, he has no concept of how to operate within the world that is “polite society.” He approaches his search for a bride with the traditional mentality of the time. Walzer argues that,
Wentworth’s willful adherence to a masculine code of honor has, in a sense, emasculated him. Furthermore, in the courtship that follows, Anne leads and he can only react. In the domesticity of the parlor, which is his new place, Wentworth learns the value of watching others, listening to others, overhearing others, rather than preaching to others (Walzer 704).
While I don’t necessarily believe that his valuation of a “masculine code of honor” emasculates him, I do think Wentworth must shift his way of thinking from that of an all male culture into the realm of a shared space with females. I also agree that Wentworth adopts the practices of observing his surroundings “rather than preaching to others,” and I think that he does so primarily in order to form a successful companionate match with Anne. Their time at Lyme shows him what is required to win her and how he must adapt in order to achieve his goal. He compromises his way of thinking to fit Anne rather than requiring her to alter herself for him. In this way, Anne shows herself to be a subtle “alpha heroine;” she remains as she is, even if he thinks he wants something different, holding steadfast to her faith in him and the love that they shared.
Many feminists, readers and critics, still find Austen’s novels problematic due to the fact that they always end with marriage. Something they forget to take into account is the fact that marriage is often the best option for women in the nineteenth century, especially women in the position of Anne and Elizabeth. There’s nothing Austen can do to change that; she wrote contemporary novels that dealt with the realities of the society in which she was writing. What Austen did was provide alternatives to the unhappy, forced matches and show women that it wasn’t necessary to settle for a husband. She gave her heroines the gift of freedom by sending them on a journey to overcome the social obstacles to their ability to exert their own agency. Regis remarks, “Nonetheless, the heroine’s freedom, however provisional, is a victory. She is freed from the immediate encumbrances that prevent her union with the hero. When the heroine achieves freedom, she chooses the hero” (Regis 16). She isn’t “giving up” her freedom. Anne, Elizabeth, and Emma all choose to join with the men that best complement them and vice versa. The formation of these companionate matches allows all involved to reach a higher level of happiness and fulfillment.