by Jamie Lutton
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
The 200th anniversary of “Pride and Prejudice” is upon us. This book is considered the greatest English novel ever written by a female author, but often long before women pick this book up, they read one of the many ‘shades’ of this book – pulp romance fiction.
The genius of this book is that its characters are believable and the misunderstandings are plausible. Austen did not just make the reader invest their interest in her hero and heroine; she made dozens of minor characters that are interesting, eccentric and sometimes hilarious, drawn in deadly thumbnail sketches. The effect this book had on 20th century writers of popular fiction is incalculable. It became the “Bible” of all romance novels, and every line has been stolen and rewritten by slavish imitators.
Today, there is a huge publishing industry devoted to churning out books that vaguely resemble “Pride and Prejudice” and Austen’s other works. Hundreds of pulp writers of “Regency Romances” began to sprout up in the 1960s, starting an industry that is still churning them out today. Its distant cousin, the Harlequin romance, which is an even larger enterprise, is teeming with thousands of titles.
When I was a bored young teen dropout, at age 14 and long before I discovered “Pride and Prejudice,” I picked up bad regency romances at the local paperback shack for 75 cents, then passed them on to my mother. They were our shared guilty pleasure, as these books were mostly vapid, with stiff wooden dialog. But they were nearly universally set in the early Regency.
The period appeals to cheap novelists as upper-class women had more freedom before the Victorian era, wore clothing that was lighter and easier to move about in, and upper-class men were not yet caught up in middle-class morality. The men and women of that class frequently obsessed with their clothes, drank too much, and gambled. Men frequently wenched, fought duels and prizefights, etc. Generally both sexes carried on openly in a way their children and grandchildren hid, in the prim Victorian era.
The background of the Napoleonic Wars, the recent French Revolution and the horrors of the Terror were a great background for a good guy or bad-guy-made-good by the infrequence of endless, endless plucky heroines.
Austen’s novel makes little mention of these wars, except for the soldiers who were stationed nearby and a terrible distraction to the younger sisters.
The romances I read, all the hundreds of them all sort of run together, and I have not found any other romance writer who could approach Austen’s subtlety, wit and understatement. She created the market for the endless romance novel market. But the reading of romance is circular; in the end, all roads lead to Jane Austen’s masterpieces.
Why read Jane Austen? Why read “Pride and Prejudice?” Well, she is the real thing. She writes about her own time, not an imagined past as other have.
No research can match the eyes of this writer, who fictionalized the truths she saw around her. When reading about her world, the astute will realize that she has been stolen from for plot, atmosphere and circumstance, without developing the reality she created.
The endless Harlequin or Regency romances feature poor but plucky girls and clueless, grumpy, but always rich men. But here is Austen’s genius.
Elizabeth the heroine is shown in her home, with her reckless little sisters, her father and her impossible mother. You see her going about her day. You see the forces that shaped her intelligence, wit and bravery. Darcy is evident by his friends, how people treat him, his snobbishness, his isolation, and his need to protect his little sister. Too often in other novels not enough effort is made to create a world, with pages of background and description.
In “The Republic,” Socrates talks about what is real and what is a shadow. He does this in dialogue by discussing shadows in an imaginary cave that looks real, but are but shadows of real things. Austen comes close to being real, a mirror of the real world, or how the real world should be, anyway. All her endless imitators fail to capture reality. Some writers, like Charles Dickens, a near contemporary of hers, made their own reality, but his was the shadow of the terror of poverty from his childhood.
Austen watched her female contemporaries go about their lives, and she satirized the byzantine negotiations for marriages for young girls. All of the girls have hopes for love, security and settling for convenience. The woman’s fate, she shows, was tied to who she married, not who she was. This byzantine struggle mapped out their fate; whether it is happy, poor, single, living at home the rest of her life, or with a husband who loves her and provides for her. This is an era when women had to make their way by striking a good a deal with a man.
This book also speaks to the intelligent and lonely among us, who wish for a soul mate when surrounded by dimmer people who do not understand the humor of existence.
It is good to read the real thin. To remember Plato’s cave again, the problem with modern readers is that many are satisfied with the pale imitations, and do not tackle the real books.
The romance novel reader who never looks up to take in “Pride and Prejudice” or Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is caught in the faded zero of this time. I had read probably over a hundred bad copies of “Pride” before I read Austen’s book, and I was jolted at how much better it was. It was then I began to read more critically.
If your taste runs to light fiction – and there is nothing wrong with that – I suggest reading Austen. If you have already been reading pulp romances, try Georgette Heyer’s novels. She is the best of the plagiarists, “one of the great guilty pleasures.”
Jamie Lutton is the owner of Twice Sold Tales. Read more on her blog, booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com.