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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a very romantic book. When Jane Austen created Elizabeth Bennett, who is spirited and has nice eyes, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is brooding and has an irresistible fondness for water features (or perhaps that was only the BBC adaptation), she probably had no idea that she was setting in motion two hundred years of obsession with the kind of True Love that overcomes All Obstacles and silences All Unpleasant Family Members.
Very few pieces of writing have entered our cultural consciousness like Pride and Prejudice, and deservedly. For who can forget that heartwarming scene where Elizabeth rides over the crest of the hill in Derbyshire, gazes upon the majestic masonry and rolling fields of Pemberley and falls head over heels in love with Mr Darcy’s enormous estate?
But wait! That’s not right, is it? It’s Mr Darcy Elizabeth loves so much, not his lawn ornaments and attractive mahogany furniture. At least, that’s what everyone says. But the more I actually read the text the less I’m convinced. Certainly, Elizabeth wouldn’t have married Darcy if he had looked and behaved like Mr Collins, but I’m not so sure, if Darcy had been the owner of Hunsford Parsonage, whether Elizabeth would still have been quite so interested in him. In the final third of the book, you can practically hear the cogs turning in Elizabeth’s head:
I could be mistress of Pemberley. (You know, his nose isn’t so bad.) I could be mistress of PEMBERLEY. (He’s actually got quite nice hair.) I could be MISTRESS OF PEMBERLEY. (I’m sure he’s not really so unpleasant.) I COULD BE MISTRESS! OF! PEMBERLEY!
And so, readers, she married him.
This is going to upset a lot of Jane Austen fans, but as far as I’m concerned Pride and Prejudice is just as much about the triumph of hard-headed cash-hungry business sense as it is about finding your One True Love.
It’s not just Pride and Prejudice, either. Many of the books that our culture holds up as romantic ideals actually contain a lot of behaviour that’s, well, not particularly nice. Mr Rochester keeps a spare wife hidden in his attic like a naughty pet, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and then can’t even be bothered to keep his appointments properly, and Heathcliff kills puppies, digs up a grave and self-harms against a tree.
These sterling examples of the ideal man have filtered down into our modern-day novels, giving us such beautiful examples of humanity: Birdsong’s Stephen Wraysford, who sleeps with a married woman after about two weeks and ten words of conversation, and Twilight’s Edward Cullen, who likes to creep into his crush’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep. If my boyfriend did any of these things, I’m not convinced I’d want to keep him around for long. But this is fiction, and in fiction stalker behaviour is almost always treated as an adorable expression of deep and abiding love.
Actually, if you’re looking for examples of a stable, non-insane long-term relationship in books, it’s better to stay away from romance plots altogether. While fiction’s great lovers run around dramatically on landscapes, screaming and crying and getting lost and so on, characters who are designated as friends have a much nicer and more peaceful time of it. I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to claim that one of the best literary examples of a marriage is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The fact that they don’t sleep together is really immaterial. They live together, they work together and engage in the kind of hugely loving argument that only two people who are thoroughly under each other’s skin can manage.
This is partly because, until very recently, men and women had extremely little in common. The gap in education between sexes, especially in the upper classes (who were generally the people who wrote books), meant that there usually could be very little going on apart from physical attraction. Men knew The Iliad in the original Greek and Hobbes’s Leviathan and women knew… well, hats. That doesn’t leave much to chat about.
Yes, Elizabeth tries to talk to Darcy about books in a ballroom, and yes, many naturally clever women did make efforts to educate themselves, but even the best DIY programme of study wasn’t going to match up to Oxbridge, and so the meeting-of-minds model of relationship, the idea that you should be best friends with your partner, just wasn’t available to most heterosexual couples until about fifty years ago. So, I suppose, at the time there was nothing you could do to express your affections apart from bang your head against trees.
This isn’t an excuse for all the bad and crazy conduct that goes on under the label of literary romance, but it is a suggestion that it might be time to lay some of our illusions about romance aside. After all, instead of worrying about the lack of grand passion in our lives we should be feeling extremely lucky. We, almost uniquely in history, can have a partner of the opposite sex who’s as interested in the French Revolution or geriatric medicine as we are. And if that sounds a bit dull to you, you ought to ask yourself if you really want a mentally unstable obsessive abuser chasing after you. If Mr Rochester came into your room right now, would it actually be a good idea to leave with him? If you’re entirely honest with yourself, the answer is: probably not.
Maybe the problem is with the word “romance” itself. Stop calling what goes on in Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice the same thing as what happens when you buy someone flowers, and we might not get so confused. After all, they don’t have many similarities. Romance, ultimately, is all very well in books, but in my opinion that’s where it belongs. After all, I’m sure Jane Austen’s heroines would have exchanged everything they ended up with for a man who’s got more going for him than his enormous house.