Sunday, January 07, 2007

Famous Literary Predecessors of the Modern Romance Novel

My New Year's resolution was to read and blog about some of the predecessors of the modern romance novels published today.* I also qualified this by adding that I'd only blog about some of the less well-known novels. That's because some of these predecessors are among the most famous novels written, and (a) you can read about them in great detail elsewhere and (b) anything I could write here would look a bit feeble in comparison with the volumes of literary criticism on them that already exist. I will, though, mention some of the famous literary predecessors of the modern romance very briefly. I'm sticking to novels which are romance according to the RWA definition, i.e. novels that have 'a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending'. For reasons of space, if a particular author has written more than one romance I'll usually just list one of them.
  • 1740, Richardson, Samuel, Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded. This is Richardson's 'most widely read work. At once profoundly influential, yet heavily and publicly vilified, the novel's publication marked the beginning of one of the most astounding moments in literary history and laid the foundation for Richardson's status as one of the founding fathers of the modern novel.' (Batchelor 2002). Regis dedicates a chapter to it (2003: 63-74). You can read a brief description of the novel here, and see illustrations from five eighteenth-century editions here.
  • 1778, Burney, Frances, Evelina: Or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World . This was 'a critical success, receiving praise from respected individuals, including the statesman Edmund Burke, and literary critic Dr. Johnson. It was admired for its comic view of wealthy English society, and for its realistic portrayal of working class London dialects' (Wikipedia). It was initially published anonymously, which led 'leading London society to speculate on the identity of the writer, who was universally assumed to be a man', though Burney's identity was later revealed and 'She was taken up by literary and high society and became the first woman to make writing novels respectable' (The Burney Society). Another aspect of Evelina which was of great significance for future women writers was that 'The "comedy of manners" genre in which she worked paved the way for Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and other 19th-century writers' (The Burney Society).
  • 1813, Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice. Sarah's already claimed Austen as a romance author, and this novel is so well-known and well-loved that it hardly seems to require any further description from me, but if you'd like the Spark Notes, they're here, and, as they say, 'Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most cherished love stories in English literature: the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth'. Colin Firth's portrayal of Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation is extremely popular. The link to the text of the novel will take you to the Republic of Pemberley site, where you can find a wealth of information about Austen, her novels and her times. You can also see Regis (2003: 75-84), and the chapter's titled 'The Best Romance Novel Ever Written', which makes Pam's feelings on this novel extremely clear! My favourite Austen is Persuasion, but I know I'm in the minority on this.
  • 1847, Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre. If you haven't read it, and want a quick synopsis, there's one here, or you can look at the Spark Notes. The Victorian Web has plenty of very short articles on many aspects of the novel, including its political and social context, treatment of gender issues, and imagery/symbolism. See also Regis (2003: 85-91).
    When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it became a bestseller. The reviews were on the whole favorable. There was much speculation about whether the writer was a man or a woman [...]. When it became known that a woman had written such a passionate novel and seemed so knowing sexually, the reviews became more negative. [...] The reviewer for the Rambler expressed a criticism that was made against all the Bronte novels--coarseness. The reference to "grosser and more animal passions" is a roundabout way of saying "sex." (Melani 2005)
  • 1847, Brontë, Anne, Agnes Grey. There's a synopsis here, where the observation is made that
    Anne's first novel resembles in its calm naturalism nothing so much as one of the later Austen novels, with the vital difference that her heroine is a working woman. It deserves, far more than Jane Eyre, the description 'governess novel', because Agnes's experience is far more typical, and the predicament of the occupation is analysed much more closely. (Brontë Parsonage Museum and Brontë Society).
    Agnes Grey isn't as famous as Jane Eyre, but personally I prefer both it and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which 'A number of contemporary critics have recognized [...] as a landmark feminist text' (Downey, 2000) to the other Brontë novels. Whatever the reason, I can manage perfectly well without the brooding Mr Rochester (and particularly without the horrible Heathcliff).
  • 1854, Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, North and South. There's a synopsis here. Unlike the Brontës, Gaskell shows us the industrial activity which contributed so greatly to the Victorian economy.
    The novel is famous as an "industrial novel" that engages [with] class struggle and suffering in newly industrialized Victorian cities like Manchester (or, as Gaskell calls it, Milton) and as an important female bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel. Margaret's public intervention in the strike ranks among the most exciting moments in Victorian literature. (Literature, Arts and Medicine Database)
  • 1861, Trollope, Anthony, Framley Parsonage. There's a synopsis here and it was with this novel that 'Anthony Trollope enjoyed his first popular success. It is the fourth of Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire - a set of six novels that share a fictional geography, interlaced characters, and a thematic preoccupation with the church in a Cathedral town' (Regis 2003: 93). Although a 'thematic preoccupation with the church' might sound a little dull, it really isn't. This is a church rife with the equivalent of modern office politics, and for those of you who like series of romances which follow a group of characters, Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire provide an example of rich and complex world-building. His other series, the Palliser novels, again involve politics, though this time the plots 'usually involve English politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament' (Wikipedia). Trollope was an extremely prolific author, and this may well have been a trait he learned from his mother:
    Fanny Trollope [...] had been writing, industriously, a record of her crazy trip to America. She called it: Domestic Manners of the Americans. It was published, and quickly became a bestseller. [...] It gave Anthony an insight into how a professional writer should write. From his mother's example (she was constantly writing for many years, although she never quite achieved the same degree of success), he learned the habit of sheer hard work. (The Trollope Society)
    One might make comparisons with Nora Roberts' work habits, but unfortunately for Trollope, 'After his death Trollope's literary reputation sank low, and he was regarded as something of a journeyman of letters. This arose partly from the revelation in his Autobiography that he treated literature as a trade and wrote by the clock' (The Victorian Web). It rose again, however, as the mass of writing about his work testifies, and he still has plenty of enthusiastic fans in the UK, US and elsewhere.
  • 1872, Hardy, Thomas, Under the Greenwood Tree. I know this isn't the most famous of Hardy's works, but it seems only right to include Hardy who is, as the Penguin Reader Factsheet acknowledges, 'one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century' and 'This charming, timeless story of rural life gave Hardy his first real taste of fame and success'. Or, as one reader candidly describes it,
    it's a book with about the least plot you will ever find in a novel. It's also on the short side. Unusually for Hardy's novels. it has a happy ending - however Far from the Madding Crowd, the next one he wrote, does too - it was only as Hardy's reputation grew that he could afford to upset his public at the end of every book.
    I was amused to note that one of the minor characters, whom some consider a witch, is called Mrs Endorfield.
  • 1908, Forster, E. M, Room with a View. As Regis observes, 'E. M. Forster may have ended this novel happily, but he was by no means sanguine about happy endings in general' (2003: 99). It's fame is probably due at least in part to the award-winning 1986 Merchant Ivory film. The Spark Notes are here.
Can you think of any others? I thought of including George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, but although it has a love story and a happy ending, I'm not sure whether the love story between Daniel and Mirah is 'central'. I also considered Dickens' Great Expectations, but again, I wasn't sure if Pip and Estella's relationship is really 'central'. And how about D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover? It certainly has a central love relationship and the ending, if not happy, seems relatively optimistic. What do you think?

Even incomplete as it is, what this list suggests to me is that (a) as we've discussed previously, men can write romance/romantic novels and (b) that the so-called 'constraints' of writing within the romance genre (which basically amount to the need to end a love-story happily) in no way preclude the creation of a work of literary merit.

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  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
* I'm taking the term 'today' somewhat loosely, to mean 'anytime in the past few decades'. Having been a medievalist, a decade or two seems like a short space of time to me. I'm sure geologists would consider a decade the equivalent of a mere blinking of an eye.

25 comments:

  1. You might consider "Quo Vadis," which was originally written in 1895 in Polish (!). It's actually a great read, very modern in voice, and the central plot is a classic romance -- lusty, chauvenistic Roman officer pursues passionate but pure Christian maiden.

    The movie's pretty good, too. Peter Ustinov's Nero steals the show with much scenery chewing, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix's performance in "Gladiator."

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  2. Thanks! I knew my list was very UK-centric. I'd not heard of this novel, despite the fact that it 'contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.' I've found a short description of it (but not a full synopsis) at Wikipedia and there are online versions (in English translation) available from Project Gutenberg. Like Trollope and Dickens, Henryk Sienkiewicz seems to have been a very, very prolific writer: 'So prolific a writer was Sienkiewicz that the complete edition of his work runs to 60 volumes' (Gessner), which again tends to suggest that you can't assume that where there's quantity there's a lack of quality.

    I don't speak Polish, so I can't be absolutely sure of this, but I think you can find a Polish version of Quo Vadis? here.

    I'll have to read it in the translation.

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  3. Kimber, I just realised that in my last comment it might look like I was trying to tell you about the novel, which I wasn't, because you already know about it. I just put in the links for my own benefit and that of anyone else who might want to read the novel or know more about the author. Sorry - I'd got so used to gathering links for the other novels that I carried on and did it for this one too.

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  4. No worries. By now, you probably know more about the author than I do. I didn't read the Polish, by the way, so my comment about it being a good read refers to the English translation I picked up at the library. There might be more than one translation, of course.

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  5. It's so funny, because as much as people now talk about Pride and Prejudice, when I think of Romance roots, I think of Burney and Gaskell first. Personally, I think Romance, as a genre we recognize today, has evolved gradually and *through* other genres, such that it didn't arrive so much as become distinctive. I would also add that Oroonoko by Aphra Behn gave the genre a jump start, too: http://eserver.org/fiction/oroonoko/

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  6. That's another novel I haven't read. I gather from a quick look at a synopsis that this is a love story that ends tragically, so there isn't the HEA I'd expect in a romance (so I probably think of this more as 'romantic fiction' than 'romance').

    I'd agree that the modern romance genre has evolved slowly, and it's still not as distinctive in the UK as it is in the US, I think. And even in the US it seems as though it's not always clear. For example over at Romancing the Blog Shannon McKelden was blogging about 'genre confusion' and today at Dear Author there's a short description of an anthology of short stories labelled 'romance' even though some don't appear to have a HEA.

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  7. It does have a very tragic ending, but what's so important about Oroonoko, IMO, is that it is one of the first English novels (1688), AND it is written by a woman, AND it is one of those epic stories of forbidden love, containing a lot of the elements that -- at least in American fiction -- converge in genres including the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, and sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin, all of which feed pretty directly into the generation of Romance fiction as a distinctive genre (just think of how much the twin themes of freedom and love appear together in Romance). Although racialist in an obvious way, and guilty of an exoticization of "the other," Behn's short novel (it takes almost as much time to describe the book as Behn did to tell the story), as a precursor, Oroonoko is really a remarkable work, and rather daring in many ways, as well.

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  8. I know that Ivanhoe by Walter Scott doesnt have a HEA but I still have it in my Top Ten Romances Ever. Besides it being a romance book in the general sense of the word because it's a grand adventure about a knight, Scott is usually credited, I believe, with the wide-spread notion that the Saxons really resented the Normans.

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  9. Oh, and Laura, as for your comment about genre confusion, did you see Karen Templeton's entry at RTB? I do think there's a difference between genre hybridity and false marketing, but I don't think it's always easy to distinguish between the two based on how books are *marketed*. Personally, I think that as Romance is becoming increasingly diverse vis a vis erotica, paranormals, suspense, etc. (i.e. cannibalizing other genres and sub genres), marketing people are stretching that even further by marketing certain books in a way as to secure a certain readership, even if that readership wouldn't uniformly find such a book appealing.

    As someone who doesn't really like rules and boundaries in fiction, I tend to be on board with all the hybridizing, but I think that it's unfair to market books beyond what they really offer to genre readers. Romance readers so often want an HEA, for example, that a romantic book that ends without the HEA should be labeled Romantic fiction or Romantic erotica, or something like that, not straight Romance, which has a fairly strong mainstream readership that depends on a certain generic definition in buying books. And IMO that readership should be respected by marketing people, even as they struggle to accurately represent more hybridized books. Maybe it's time to come up with some new terms to reflect this new diversity (along the lines of Romantic Suspense, which seems to be pretty descriptive, IMO).

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  10. the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, and sentimental fiction

    You know, Robin, I'm still hoping you might do us a blog entry or two on these topics... :-)

    Pamela's got captivity in it, of course, as does Clarissa, but the latter doesn't have a HEA, but it's apparently (in contrast to what you've said about Oroonoko) 'the longest novel to have been written in the English language' (according to Jenny Batchelor).

    Ivanhoe always annoyed me, because of the ending, but given that the hero marries the woman he loves, it sort of has a happy ending, it's just that for me it's all wrong, because as far as I'm concerned, Rowena is not the heroine.

    For some reason (probably the medieval setting, and the fact that both authors were born in Edinburgh) this reminds me that I haven't mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow. There's an online edition here and it most definitely has a HEA. There's a synopsis here.

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  11. Yes, I saw Karen's blogpost.

    I think that it's unfair to market books beyond what they really offer to genre readers

    I think it's unfair too, and I thought Karen's ice-cream metaphor was very apt. Readers often choose books to suit the mood they're in (as I mentioned here), so it seems foolish of marketing departments to set out to trick readers. Surely they should realise that often if a reader gets a book that doesn't suit her/his mood she/he is very likely to be disappointed and not enjoy the book as much as she/he might have done when in the right mood for that book.

    Re 'romantic suspense' I think that can actually be a somewhat confusing label because it does suggest that the novels might be 'romantic' but not necessarily 'romance'. I think it might have been clearer if the ones with a HEA were called 'suspenseful romance'. It maybe wouldn't sound as good, but it would be clearer. I have a feeling that Harlequin's 'Bombshell' line (which was usually described as 'romantic suspense') had a mixture of stories with and without HEAs and that possibly contributed to its lack of success, because some readers didn't get what they were expecting.

    Of all the subgenres of romance listed by the RWA here, romantic suspense is the only one in which the adjective 'romantic' is used. All the others have an adjective describing the romance (e.g. 'historical romance'). And although it's not mentioned there, that's also the distinction between erotic romance (which is a romance) and erotica (which doesn't have to have a central love story and HEA). Sylvia Day's got a longer discussion of the differences between erotica and erotic romance here.

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  12. j as in jennifer09 January, 2007 06:03

    I still consider one of the most romantic novels I've ever read to be "The Three Musketeers." Everything is for love, honor and loyalty, there is a heroine to save, a villain to vanquish and the fate of a nation teeters on the brink. So the girl is someone else's wife, and *SPOILER!* she drowns in the end. (I think, to men, living with the perpetual memory of the lost love must have seemed the height of romance.)

    I was also very influenced by "Jane Eyre." Swashbuckling heroes and gothic Victorian melodrama: where would Romance be without them?

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  13. I'd add The Scarlet Pimpernel. There's Rebecca, too, but the romance between hero and heroine is not central to novel. Gone with the Wind, of course, but happy ending is an issue there too.

    And Persuasion is my favorite *Austen* too, but I still think P+P makes a better ROMANCE.

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  14. Blogger's behaving strangely today, so I hope this comment gets through.

    I definitely agree that The Three Musketeers is romantic, but I didn't like the way it ended.

    I think, to men, living with the perpetual memory of the lost love must have seemed the height of romance.

    It was published in 1844. I know that the Victorians had a bit of a thing about dead women, who appear not infrequently in art (e.g. Millais' 1851-52 painting of the dead Ophelia or various various depictions of a dead Lady of Shalott) and literature. Apparently

    the figure of the beautiful dead woman [...] became a convention in Victorian literature. It was common enough to become a cliche, which rendered an attractive woman innocuous then on two levels: literally, because as a corpse she is no longer a sexual object, and metaphorically (Compton)

    and

    Edgar Allan Poe [...] proposed that the death of a young woman was the most beautiful of all poetic subjects. Romantic and Victorian poets who agreed with Poe produced sentimentalized depictions of dead and dying women as aesthetic objects. These include the many nineteenth-century pictures, poems, and statues of women in chains, Ophelia, and the dying-woman-in-a-boat; this last subject appears in many illustrations and paintings of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and Elaine, "the lily maid of Astalot." These poetic and pictorial representations of dead and dying women provide the most powerful (and often repugnant) depiction of the suffering woman as object of male pleasure. (Landow)

    Poe's words were: 'the death [...] of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world', and the quotation is from his 'The Philosophy of Composition', 1846.

    Sarah, I like The Scarlet Pimpernel a lot, and I think it must be the predecessor of all those modern romances featuring aristocratic Regency spy rings, but, much as I like it, I'm not sure it's usually considered great literature. I could well be wrong about that, though, and you know far, far, far more than I do about teaching English Literature.

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  15. Oh, and I notice that the discussion about genre, books misleadingly labelled 'romance' and HEAs is continuing here and there's reference made to Sarah's recent post, which makes the discussion go round in a nice circle, since I referred to a previous post at Dear Author in an earlier comment on this thread.

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  16. the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, and sentimental fiction

    You know, Robin, I'm still hoping you might do us a blog entry or two on these topics... :-)


    I will, Laura, but it will take a bit of research, not like most of the off the cuff comments I make hither and yon. So I keep putting it off, especially when, like now, for example, I'm supposed to be writing a late paper for a class from last semester! I really, really appreciate your interest, though.

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  17. I'm definitely interested, Robin, but I wouldn't want to tempt you into doing something that would take time away from your studies. I'll just have to wait patiently till you finish your course ;-)

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  18. I’ve been lurking around here appreciatively for some time now and I hope you don’t mind if I take the liberty of commenting on this post. I guess I’d just better begin by saying I’m an avid romance reader and I respect what you’re doing here (please don’t think otherwise because I’m in no way trying to be critical or offensive or argumentative) but I have to question the assumption that these novels are the precursors of modern romance. They are novels, yes, but they are not romances, and it seems no more than accurate (or illuminating) to say they are than it is to claim that Dracula is the precursor of modern horror or that Sidney’s Arcadia is the precursor of modern fantasy. Yes, they contain elements that have inspired, and to some extent defined, those genres but I think the important distinction is that they do not share the *assumptions* of genre fiction.

    For example, to take fantasy, most historical literary novels with fantastical settings are using the setting to explore specific “real world real time” issues. Modern day fantasy fiction is all about the creation of another more magical world, more colourful and vivid than our own. Even Tolkien wasn’t writing a fantasy novel, he was giving England the myth cycle he believed it lacked.

    In very simple terms, modern romance takes as its central tenant the assumption that two well suited people getting together is the best of all possible happy endings. We are never asked to question whether, in fact, the heroine would be better off if she didn’t marry the hero and instead became an astronaut instead. But that’s fine, that’s not what we’re reading for: however the fact remains that our heroine has the luxury of being able to make that choice. Her historical predecessor had no such freedom of goals or values – if she was lucky and pretty she got to marry Mr Darcy, if she wasn’t, she got to marry Mr Collins. By these sorts of juxtapositions, the novels you have cited as the precursors of modern romance are questioning the very validity of central assumption of the romance genre i.e. that love and marriage is the happiest of endings. I’m not saying that romantic fiction should be questioning this, I’m just drawing attention to the fact that in historical novels the virtuous heroine is usually rewarded with marriage to a man she loves because it offered a better chance of future happiness than marriage to a man she didn’t love, which was her only alternative. Mr Collins is always in waiting the wings with a smarmy smile on his face.

    Pride and Prejudice is a lovely book, and, like everyone else who has ever read it, I’m deeply satisfied by the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. But what of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins? What about Mr and Mrs Bennet? What about Lydia and Wickham? For that matter what about Jane and Mr Bingley – again, I’m in no doubt of their love, but the fact remains that Mr Bingley is a man so weak-willed that the interference of his friend and his sisters are enough to persuade him to jeopardise his future happiness and all of Jane’s marital prospects, for one did not lightly recover from being jilted.

    I think I probably ought to stop here – although enthusiasm and an evangelical zeal are almost convincing me to rampage through some of the other books as well. I very hope much this hasn’t come across as a rant or a criticism – and I only wrote out of a genuine interest and curiosity. Oh, and as a final point I should probably establish that my uncertainty regarding these books as precursors of the modern romance does not mean I am denying the literary merit of romantic fiction. Because I love the stuff.

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  19. Hello and welcome, Anonymous, and thanks for the comments.

    They are novels, yes, but they are not romances, and it seems no more than accurate (or illuminating) to say they are than it is to claim that Dracula is the precursor of modern horror [...] I think the important distinction is that they do not share the *assumptions* of genre fiction.

    First of all, as I think you'd agree, the core of these novels is the same as that of modern romance novels, i.e. a love story and an ending in which the hero and heroine are going to be together (not all modern romances actually end in marriage), and many of them have been a source of inspiration to modern romance writers.

    Secondly, I do think it's illuminating to point out the modern genre's roots because it demonstrates that a love-story can have literary merit, which is something that's often forgotten when people start to mock 'those books with the unrealistic happy endings that are all about love'. [I know you're not doing this, but some people do.]

    That takes us on to what you're saying about 'the assumptions of genre fiction'. And this is where I'll have to disagree with you.

    most historical literary novels with fantastical settings are using the setting to explore specific “real world real time” issues. Modern day fantasy fiction is all about the creation of another more magical world, more colourful and vivid than our own

    I've got a couple of science fiction romances sitting on my desk, and I think they do 'explore specific "real world real time" issues. I haven't read a lot of modern fantasy, but I'd be very surprised if a lot of books in this genre didn't explore issues such as gender roles, race, genetics, social status and how these affect identity. I think it would pretty much impossible for them not to, because even if all the author wants to do is try to create a world that's different from our own, in the process of doing that the author creates a contrast with our reality which can make us think about these issues and how our world differs from the imaginary one.

    modern romance takes as its central tenant the assumption that two well suited people getting together is the best of all possible happy endings

    I'm not sure this is true either. The novels certainly suggest that for the hero and heroine getting together is the best of all possible endings, but there are often secondary characters who are single and are not paired off, and often the hero and/or heroine have had previous love relationships which ended badly, so there isn't a blanket endorsement of marriage as something which will automatically bring happiness to any two people who are in love.

    our heroine has the luxury of being able to make that choice. Her historical predecessor had no such freedom of goals or values

    The modern heroine, in a contemporary romance set in the 'West', may have more choices open to her but in historical romances written by contemporary authors (unless it's a wallpaper historical) the heroine will not have the same 'freedom of goals or values'. I also think that heroines such as Jane Eyre or Helen (from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) have rather a lot of choices open to them, because by the time they decide to marry the hero they're rich and don't have to marry if they don't want to.

    the precursors of modern romance are questioning the very validity of central assumption of the romance genre i.e. that love and marriage is the happiest of endings

    As mentioned above, I think modern romances can do this too. If you look at Crusie's Fast Women for example, there are a plethora of failed marriages and one of the heroine's 2 friends is going to be single and run a business, while the hero's ex-wife goes off travelling, alone. These are presented as positive outcomes for these women.

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  20. Hi – thanks for taking the time to respond, I found your comments very interesting. And, err, sorry I seem to have called myself Anonymous. I'm going to do my best to reply - but I'm probably a little out of my depth.

    First of all, as I think you'd agree, the core of these novels is the same as that of modern romance novels … and many of them have been a source of inspiration to modern romance writers.

    This is the thing, I’m not sure I do agree. I think that “having romance in it” and “being a romance” are very different things. And the same goes for “being inspired by” and “being a consequence of.” Interestingly, Mark Haddon (author of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – apologies of you are familiar with this book, it’s big in the UK and I’m not always sure how well things drift westward) claimed Jane Austen as one his inspirations and we would hardly claim that Jane Austen is the precursor of, well, detective stories and books about autistic children. I think he makes quite an interesting point in that, as well as I remember it off the top of my head, he claims Jane Austen was writing books about certain types of people through the medium of a book that those sort of people would read – similarly the reason Haddon chosen detective stories with mathematical problems and pictures was that he thought it would be the type of book an autistic child would want to read. I guess what I’m trying to say is that inspiration only works in tracing a line backwards, you can’t use it to trace a line forwards. Well, you can, but it’s meaningless to do so because if we claimed every book that happened to have romance plot in it and a reasonably happy ending was a romance we’d appropriate most of the canon.

    Secondly, I do think it's illuminating to point out the modern genre's roots because it demonstrates that a love-story can have literary merit, which is something that's often forgotten…

    I know that genre fiction, romance especially, takes a critical beating. But, personally, I think it’s … unhelpful … (possibly) to try to establish literary merit through the process of establishing a spurious and prestigious heritage. I mean, it’s the equivalent of saying epic poetry is the superior form of poetry because that’s what Homer and Virgil wrote. Romance novels do have literary merit, but they don’t have literary merit because Jane Austen had characters that got married, they have literary merit because they can be well written, witty, interesting, profound, poetic, challenging, exciting, accessible and whatever else you want. In absolute truth – and I mean this in no way disparagingly - I suspect the roots of the modern day romance are the type of books that Austen mocks so mercilessly in Northanger Abbey.

    I haven't read a lot of modern fantasy, but I'd be very surprised if a lot of books in this genre didn't explore issues such as gender roles, race, genetics, social status and how these affect identity.

    Ah, I expressed myself so badly. I didn’t mean that just because they’ve got elves, dwarfs and aliens in there they don’t explore those sort of universal issues – as you say it’s impossible not to, because that’s what literature, among other things, does. I think what I was trying – ineptly to say – that very often books with fantastical elements to them often arose as a *specific* response to *specific* real world events. For example, apart of exploring a host of broader issues about the nature of humanity, Gulliver’s Travels also makes a lot of very detailed political and social point connected to the events of the day. I just mentioned fantasy as an illustration – I’m aware I’m generalising horribly. But what was I try to say is that what a reader expects (and receives) from a modern day fantasy is very different to what something like The Faery Queen or even The Lord of the Rings (ostensibly the “roots” of the genre) offers.

    “The novels certainly suggest that for the hero and heroine getting together is the best of all possible endings, but there are often secondary characters who are single and are not paired off, and often the hero and/or heroine have had previous love relationships which ended badly, so there isn't a blanket endorsement of marriage as something which will automatically bring happiness to any two people who are in love…”

    I’m sorry if I suggested there was, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that romance novels endorse certain lifestyle choices or behaviours. Let me try to explain myself better. In modern romantic fiction, as readers we expect a story in which the primary focus is on the gradual development of a relationship between two people and that their making a gesture of long-term commitment to each other at the end is the perfect ending. Ultimately, although of course they lend colour and complexity to the text, what happens to the secondary characters is irrelevant. But I reckon we’d feel pretty cheesed off if two of the minor characters paired off happily but the hero and heroine didn’t. This, I think, was what I was trying to articulate by speaking of the assumptions of the genre. Similarly, if the writer has any talent, we never come to the end of a romance novel thinking “Hmm…she’s wasting herself” or “it a shame she didn’t up with the one of the secondary characters.” Whereas, I think, often in historical fiction – especially books preoccupied with the status of women – we are rarely presented with an unqualified happy ending in the same way. I don’t mean by this that modern romance novels do not explore issues or challenging ideas; it’s just that the sort of ideas and issues on which they focus are very different to those present in historical novels.

    In historical romances written by contemporary authors (unless it's a wallpaper historical) the heroine will not have the same 'freedom of goals or values'.

    Yes but that doesn’t matter because we know she’s going to marry the hero and live happily ever after. In Pride and Prejudice, Kitty and Mary are unmarried, and Mary presumably never will marry, Lydia is married to a feckless wastrel and Charlotte is married to Mr Collins. That’s not a great success rate. And, for me at least, the joy of Elizabeth and Darcy’s union is if not compromised but at least shadowed by the knowledge that, as much as they deserve their happy ending, they are still living in a society in which excellent women, like Charlotte Lucas, have so few choices available to them that marriage to a hypocritical slimy toad is the best chance she has of reasonable contentment and security. By the criteria of the RWA Pride and Prejudice is not a romance. It may have a central love story but the ending is not optimistic.

    I also think that heroines such as Jane Eyre or Helen (from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) have rather a lot of choices open to them, because by the time they decide to marry the hero they're rich and don't have to marry if they don't want to.

    Well, yes and no. I have always thought the triumph of Jane Eyre was the character of Jane – a steely, courageous young woman of unflagging determination who rises from poverty and abuse to *get everything she wants* without having to compromise her morals or her sense of self. That she ends her days as nursemaid and companion to a broken down Rochester is her choice, yes, and I celebrate it but not as a sublime romance of two people were meant to be together but because Jane decides she wants Rochester, who is never presented as her equal, and I am glad to see her get him. If a modern romance presented such an unbalanced pair, I think it would be a disappointing read.

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  21. thanks for taking the time to respond

    My pleasure! I always enjoy a good discussion.

    I think that “having romance in it” and “being a romance” are very different things.

    That's true, which is why I'd make a distinction between 'romantic' and 'romance' novels. I'd label anything with a 'central romance' and an optimistic ending a 'romance'.

    And the same goes for “being inspired by” and “being a consequence of.” Interestingly, Mark Haddon (author of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – apologies of you are familiar with this book, it’s big in the UK and I’m not always sure how well things drift westward) claimed Jane Austen as one his inspirations and we would hardly claim that Jane Austen is the precursor of, well, detective stories and books about autistic children.

    I'm in the UK, and I have heard of the book, but I've not read it. I would agree that there's a big difference between being a source of inspiration for something and being in the same genre as something.

    if we claimed every book that happened to have romance plot in it and a reasonably happy ending was a romance we’d appropriate most of the canon

    Well, it would have to be a novel, and that's a relatively recent form. And if we're narrowing it down to novels with a 'central romance' and an optimistic ending, it does rule out quite a lot more.

    I think it’s … unhelpful … (possibly) to try to establish literary merit through the process of establishing a spurious and prestigious heritage

    I wouldn't want to claim that any romance had merit because of its heritage. Each romance must be judged on its own merits. But I do think that looking at the canon is useful given the prejudice there is which labels 'literary fiction' literary and, therefore implies that genre fiction is not literary. Works of modern literary fiction don't tend to be about love stories with optimistic endings and I think it would be unfair if romances were automatically assumed to be lacking in literary merit just because of their subject matter.

    I suspect the roots of the modern day romance are the type of books that Austen mocks so mercilessly in Northanger Abbey

    Austen certainly mocks the responses of certain readers to gothic romances, but she defends novel-reading. Sometimes she's rather tongue-in-cheek, so it can be hard to pin down her opinions, but she does say

    I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. [...] “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5)

    Sorry, that was long, but the way she mentions the denigration of critics and the label 'trash' makes me think that she'd defend romance novels were she alive today, since they meet with exactly these criticisms. And the titles of the novels she mentions sound very much like those of the novels I'd identify as romances (like Pamela and Evelina). Also her 'Lady Susan' reminded me quite a lot of 'Evelina', and not just because both are epistolary novels. One of the bad male characters in Evelina has the surname Willoughby, and that's also the name of the villain of Sense and Sensibility. It could just be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

    very often books with fantastical elements to them often arose as a *specific* response to *specific* real world events

    Like I said, I haven't read much fantasy, but I did once read a discussion of a Pratchett novel and I got the impression that there was quite a lot of satire of contemporary society in that.

    I reckon we’d feel pretty cheesed off if two of the minor characters paired off happily but the hero and heroine didn’t. This, I think, was what I was trying to articulate by speaking of the assumptions of the genre.

    Well yes, that's one of the differences between 'romantic fiction' and 'romance'. But I think you could easily argue that if Darcy hadn't ended up with Elizabeth, or Evelina hadn't ended up with Lord Orville, the reader would be disappointed too.

    By the criteria of the RWA Pride and Prejudice is not a romance. It may have a central love story but the ending is not optimistic.

    I think we'll have to agree to differ on this one. As with the centrality of the love-story, the amount of optimism in each novel is something that one can only make a subjective judgement about, and different people will have different responses to the same work.

    I happen to think that Lydia and Wickham deserve each other, and Charlotte isn't unhappy, because she takes a prosaic view of marriage. I don't think there's any guarantee that Mary and Kitty won't marry - they may improve wonderfully and meet suitable young men if they spend time visiting Elizabeth and Jane. And I take a more positive view of Bingley than you do. I prefer him to Darcy, actually. Although outgoing, he's not hugely self-confident (which makes him the opposite of Darcy, who is not outgoing but is convinced that any woman he proposes to will gratefully accept). The way I see it, Darcy managed to convince Bingley that Jane didn't really love him and Bingley was too modest not to trust Darcy's judgement. But that doesn't mean that he and Jane won't be happy after marriage.

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  22. I'm no expert in Austen, but I did have one thought to add about P & P, based on my one experience teaching the novel.

    ANONYMOUS writes: "Pride and Prejudice is a lovely book, and, like everyone else who has ever read it, I’m deeply satisfied by the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. But what of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins? What about Mr and Mrs Bennet? What about Lydia and Wickham? For that matter what about Jane and Mr Bingley – again, I’m in no doubt of their love, but the fact remains that Mr Bingley is a man so weak-willed that the interference of his friend and his sisters are enough to persuade him to jeopardise his future happiness and all of Jane’s marital prospects, for one did not lightly recover from being jilted." All of this is enough to make ANON wonder about the fundamental optimism of the novel's ending.

    It seems to me, or did when last I read it, that P & P offers a set of case studies, if you will, of marriage: how it (often, or even mostly) can go wrong, and the effects that will have on the spouses in question; and how it can (rarely, but possibly) go right, or at least can come to pass when based upon a courtship that goes right. Elizabeth and Darcy are the moral center or exemplary couple in the novel, from which all the other couples are a falling-off in one way or another.

    Thus, for example, Jane and Bingley are near the ideal, but since neither Jane nor Bingley actually changes during their courtship, separation, and reunion--Bingley did not rethink himself, his values, his character, but was returned TO Jane by Darcy--they remain one step down from the ideal in the novel. Everyone else lies still farther down the slopes.

    The core optimism of the book lies, for me, in the possibility it offers of courtship and marriage going splendidly right, in the end, even once. An ideal has been offered, against which reality can be measured.

    And, I might add, even within the novel this marriage has its effects on others:

    "Pemberley was now Georgiana's home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. They were able to love each other even as well as they intended. Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother. He, who had always inspired in herself a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry. Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth's instructions, she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself."

    Does the novel not offer "Elizabeth's instructions" to its many female readers as well, lessons in marital liberty and pleasantry, so to speak? So it strikes me, anyway!

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  23. Oh God, I’m so sorry, I seem to have inadvertently opened a great big can of worms. I didn’t mean to hijack the comments section like this.

    That's true, which is why I'd make a distinction between 'romantic' and 'romance' novels. I'd label anything with a 'central romance' and an optimistic ending a 'romance'.

    I think we’re chasing our tails now. In essentials then, I suspect the definition (which I know is not yours) is broad and unhelpful. I think the problem may be with “central romance” for I dispute the centrality of the romance to many of the novels you have categorised as romance. Jane Eyre, for example, although it has a passionate romance in it, is ultimately about Jane Eyre herself. Her journey is central to the story, that she ends it with Rochester is incidental. It’s not called Jane and Rochester or, I don’t know, The Governess and the Rake. Tellingly, we always think of Jane Eyre as Jane and Edward Rochester as Rochester.

    I'm in the UK

    Ah! I’m delighted – as far as I understood it most of the serious academic study of romance novels occurred overseas.

    I would agree that there's a big difference between being a source of inspiration for something and being in the same genre as something.

    Which is why I am so reluctant to classify some of the literary texts you have named as romance.

    And if we're narrowing it down to novels with a 'central romance' and an optimistic ending, it does rule out quite a lot more.

    I’m genuinely not sure that’s narrow. Les Liaisons Dangereuses – central romance and optimistic ending (i.e. goodness prevails, decadent French aristocracy annihilated in revolution), Clarissa – central romance and optimistic ending, Tom Jones – central romance and optimistic ending but the point is these novels are not *about* the romance. Neither, arguably, are Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre.

    Works of modern literary fiction don't tend to be about love stories with optimistic endings and I think it would be unfair if romances were automatically assumed to be lacking in literary merit just because of their subject matter.

    Indeedy deed.

    Austen certainly mocks the responses of certain readers to gothic romances, but she defends novel-reading.

    Absolutely. I entirely agree with you.



    Like I said, I haven't read much fantasy, but I did once read a discussion of a Pratchett novel and I got the impression that there was quite a lot of satire of contemporary society in that.

    Ah Pratchett’s an interesting case – he began writing spoofs on the fantasy genre and, I think discovering himself to be Literature (or at least Popular), turned to satire on the real world.

    Well yes, that's one of the differences between 'romantic fiction' and 'romance'. But I think you could easily argue that if Darcy hadn't ended up with Elizabeth, or Evelina hadn't ended up with Lord Orville, the reader would be disappointed too.

    Touche.

    I think we'll have to agree to differ on this one. As with the centrality of the love-story, the amount of optimism in each novel is something that one can only make a subjective judgement about, and different people will have different responses to the same work.

    Agreed … but then if the definition of what constitutes a romance is based on something as ephemeral of subjective judgement perhaps we are in difficulty? I mean, by this token if I read a romance book and I find it to be rather poorly written and the hero a pillock … I’m unlikely to find the ending either emotionally satisfying or optimistic but it’s still a romance.

    I happen to think that Lydia and Wickham deserve each other, and Charlotte isn't unhappy, because she takes a prosaic view of marriage.

    I dislike Lydia intensely but I think it’s quite a harsh punishment for being silly, over indulged and badly brought up. I don’t think Charlotte is necessarily unhappy but really if there had been any option than marrying Mr Collins is it not likely she would have taken it – is this not the point?

    I don't think there's any guarantee that Mary and Kitty won't marry - they may improve wonderfully and meet suitable young men if they spend time visiting Elizabeth and Jane.

    Austen speaks of the improvement in Kitty and Mary but offers us no more of their fate. Mary, particularly, seems consigned to be the carer of her mother, an unenviable state. And even if Elizabeth’s marriage gives her some consequence she’s still taking the fast road to Miss Bates.

    And I take a more positive view of Bingley than you do … The way I see it, Darcy managed to convince Bingley that Jane didn't really love him and Bingley was too modest not to trust Darcy's judgement. But that doesn't mean that he and Jane won't be happy after marriage.

    I have a positive view of Crispin Bonham-Carter, he’s adorable. But the fact is that Darcy *changes* for Elizabeth, which gives me more of hope of him. Bingley doesn’t – he allows Darcy to persuade him Jane isn’t in love with him and waits passively until Darcy tells him he can marry her after all. I mean this moderately frivolously but I wonder what would happen if someone told him she was having an affair with the milkman (or Regency equivalent thereof, stableboy or gardener, I think, being traditional :) )

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  24. Hi there e.m. selinger!

    I'm no expert in Austen, but I did have one thought to add about P & P, based on my one experience teaching the novel.

    Fantastic, add away.

    It seems to me, or did when last I read it, that P & P offers a set of case studies…

    Yes, I’ve read such arguments before, and it seems very plausible. I just can’t help but notice that of all the marriages in the book there are two successful unions, the Gardiners and, of course, Darcy and Elizabeth. Compared to at least five (possibly more) non-ideal offerings sliding to disaster territory.

    The core optimism of the book lies, for me, in the possibility it offers of courtship and marriage going splendidly right, in the end, even once. An ideal has been offered, against which reality can be measured.

    This is an interesting perspective; however, for most of the women in the novel (with the possible exception of Ann de Bough!), marriage is the only option they have and since a disastrous union is better than being a derided and poverty-stricken old maid (as I think Austen’s letter show she was thought she was perceived) the question becomes not what makes an ideal marriage but why excellent women like Charlotte Lucas (and very nearly Elizabeth Bennet) are basically forced to marry men like Mr Collins.

    And, I might add, even within the novel this marriage has its effects on others..

    Yes indeed, a very positive influence. But let’s not forget the influence of bad marriages. I don’t know what happened to Lord de Bough but, ye Gods, check out Ann. And although the Bennet’s managed to produce Elizabeth and Jane, they also created Kitty, Lydia and Mary “three of the silliest girls in the country.” Arguably had Mr and Mrs Bennet been better suited, Mrs Bennet less foolish and Mr Bennet less involved in his own private mockeries Lydia would neither have been so stupid or so disgraced.

    Does the novel not offer "Elizabeth's instructions" to its many female readers as well, lessons in marital liberty and pleasantry,

    I think it to some extent it does – I’m not denying the beacon of hope that Darcy and Elizabeth represent but I also think the novel is more complex than that. I think it contains within it an implicit criticism of a society that values women only as wives and mothers, offers them so few outlets for their abilities and traps them in marriages that, although they can be happy and successful, are more likely to be unmitigated disasters.

    Throughout the book the business of getting husbands is presented in such a way as to draw attention to the artificiality of the business. Jane’s natural modesty and charm does her no good whatsoever, and it takes the clear-eyed Charlotte to point that out that she needs to play certain games to capture Bingley. Catherine de Bough sees it as something she can manipulate with her wealth and consequence. Most of Mrs Bennet’s “tricks”, embarrassing though they are, do pay off – yes Jane catches a cold but she gets to stay at Netherfield. Darcy and Mr Collins both view courtship and proposing as a game or ritual – as ordered and inevitable as a country dance. Neither expects to be rejected because they are in a position of absolute power. Love and marriage are rarely seen as natural or effortless – it’s neither romantic nor optimistic

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  25. I seem to have inadvertently opened a great big can of worms. I didn’t mean to hijack the comments section like this.

    Really, it's fine. It's good to have a rigorous discussion. And worms are very useful if one's going to catch fish. Some ideas are, if not fishy, as slippery as eels. And that's a dreadful abuse of the initial metaphor. Oh well.

    I think the problem may be with “central romance” for I dispute the centrality of the romance to many of the novels you have categorised as romance.

    Yes, the 'centrality' issue is one that's slippery. I suspect that some of the modern romances (e.g. Crusie's Fast Women) might not be judged to have a 'central romance' either, by some people. To me centrality is probably best judged by what would happen if the romance was taken out. If the romance relationship is a primary motivator of character development for both parties then I'd think of it as 'central' even if it doesn't take up most of the pages. But I'm sure other people's ideas of 'centrality' could be different.

    Also, to be fair to myself, I did call these novels the 'predecessors' of the modern romance. I don't think they were written in the same context as the modern romances, whose authors are aware of their place within a particular genre. That said, even today I think there are slippery areas. For example, in the UK there's less distinction made between romance and romantic fiction; 'chick lit' can have a central love story and a happy ending (e.g. Bridget Jones's Diary); there's the label 'women's fiction' and the way that romance engages with mystery (romantic suspense), erotic elements (erotic romance), historical fiction (historical romance) etc. So I don't think the boundaries are entirely clear at all times.

    Ah! I’m delighted – as far as I understood it most of the serious academic study of romance novels occurred overseas.

    jay Dixon's in the UK, though I'm not sure what she's working on at the moment. Lynne Pearce works in this (or a closely related) area. I think there are people working on 'chick lit', at least, there will be some people giving papers on that at the Feminism and Popular Culture conference in Newcastle. And Sandra Schwab's 'overseas', but she's in Germany, not the US. Sandra and I will both be giving papers at that conference, as will someone from Belgium. But yes, on the whole, there does seem to be most going on in the US, with some interest in the UK, Australia and a few other places.

    Les Liaisons Dangereuses – central romance and optimistic ending (i.e. goodness prevails, decadent French aristocracy annihilated in revolution), Clarissa – central romance and optimistic ending

    OK, well perhaps one has to say that the central characters have to be in love with each other and the ending has to be one that they would think was optimistic.

    Tom Jones – central romance and optimistic ending but the point is these novels are not *about* the romance.

    My memory of this one's a bit hazy, but it seemed to be more satirical/comical than one would expect from a romance and the 'heroine' seemed a very minor character, while most of the story is about Tom's various adventures, so I wouldn't consider it *about* the romance either.

    if the definition of what constitutes a romance is based on something as ephemeral of subjective judgement perhaps we are in difficulty?

    Well, of course, but if we weren't in difficulty we wouldn't have the opportunity to have discussions about this sort of thing. I suspect you'd have similar problems if you tried to define any genre. I was at a conference some time ago where several academics got into a very heated discussion about the definition of the Spanish sentimental romance (late 15th-century and early 16th-century). That seems to be what academic life is about a lot of the time - having fruitful discussions because things aren't clear and there are differences of opinion and interpretation.

    the fact is that Darcy *changes* for Elizabeth, which gives me more of hope of him

    Ah, well, that gets me back to what I said about the 'centrality' of the love-story usually meaning that the love relationship provokes changes in the protagonists.

    And I'm not too worried about Lydia - she's got the ability to ignore unpleasant facts and to find enjoyment and distraction wherever she goes. And if things get really, really bad financially she can probably find a home with her sisters (though not with Wickham, but that probably wouldn't bother her very much).

    Re Bingley

    I wonder what would happen if someone told him she was having an affair with the milkman (or Regency equivalent thereof, stableboy or gardener, I think, being traditional :) )

    He's only believe it if the person who told him was Darcy, and we know that Darcy would never lie (he can just be completely wrong at misinterpreting other people's emotions, but he wouldn't lie about a fact). And wouldn't a groom, or maybe the gamekeeper be better than a stableboy or gardener?

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