Welcome to February! I can’t believe how fast January flew by! My children are already bringing home heart-shaped crafts from school in celebration of the upcoming St. Valentine’s Day holiday. While I maintain that Jane Austen’s books are about so much more than romantic love you simply can’t get away from the marriage plots and anyone can see that she believed love as the basis of a happy marriage.
Using writelikejane.com, I have researched the occurrences of marriage and love related words in Austen’s works. Love appears the most at 568 times. However, the context is not always romantic love. Elizabeth Bennet loves a laugh and absurdities. Mrs. Bennet nearly always calls Lydia “my love.” Mr. Collins claims to love first Elizabeth and then Charlotte Lucas and yet we know neither is true. The word ‘lover’ appears 45 times. Each use maintains the context of romantic attachment but applies to the meaning “one who is enamored, a person in love” rather than an extramarital attachment. This means the word lover occurs less than 10% of the time when the word love appears in the text and curiously enough, does not appear in Persuasion at all. I have not taken the time to comb through each use of the word “love, ” but I think we can extrapolate at least 10% of the context does apply to romantic love.
Additionally, The Austen Thesaurus gives a list of related words Jane Austen used as well as a list of related words she did not use. Other romantic words used: beloved (49), admirer (15), beau (14), darling (11). Words she did not use: paramour, sweetheart, truelove, adorer, adore, amorist, infatuate, inamorato/a, doxy, and devotee.
Now, let us compare marriage related word. Marriage comes in at 246 times. Marriage related words are: matrimony (32), union (32), wedding (45), conjugal (10), nuptials (4), jointure (3), connubial (2), banns (1), license (1). Further, Austen uses a number of words to reference the traditional belief of marriage for fiscal and familial prudence. These words include: match (125), joining (20), agreement (14), and bond (10). In addition to several of the words above, Austen uses alliance 23 times to denote the legality of marriage.
Comparatively, of the 568 occurrences of ‘love,’ Austen uses other romantic words only 134 times, which is less than 25%. Marriage related words totaled are 299; over 100% of the number of times the word marriage appears. We now have quantitative proof that marriage plot does not necessarily mean romantic love.
What do all these numbers mean? I think they’re evidence that while Austen’s books are marriage plots, it is about more than romance. And of the 25% romance, only about 10% of each story ends up focusing on the real love match.
What is the point of having a misdirected love story? So the characters can struggle and grow. Unlike a modern day genre Romance book, however, Austen’s characters’ primary objective is not everlasting love and a happy marriage. Instead, in accordance to the era she wrote, they are rewards at the end of a story — nearly tacked on as an unfinished idea at the end in many cases — for a heroine of excellent character who overcame the conflict of the story. In this way, Austen’s heroines have more in common with Pamela, the virtuous servant girl who refused to go to bed with her master before marriage in Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (Samuel Richardson, 1740), than they do with the Romance Writers of America definition of a Romance novel: “The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”
I believe understanding this about Austen’s works can help readers understand the nature of her more controversial couples. Many love to sigh over the love of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet or the steadfastness of Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot’s second chance. However, many readers also believe Austen made errors matching Elinor Dashwood with Edward Ferrars, Emma Woodhouse with the stodgy Mr. Knightley, and Fanny Price with Edmund Bertram. Those relationships seem the least romantic to our modern sensibilities. As Knightley says of himself, “God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.”
I don’t mean to say that Austen’s works do not contain Romance and cannot be counted as precursors to the modern day genre novel. I do, however, think Jane Austen is just as appropriate whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day or Single’s Awareness Day.
This piece is part of a month-long theme on my blog Stories from the Past. Be sure to subscribe and check it on each Thursday of the month as I will examine the lovers in Jane Austen for the month of February. Next week, I’ll cover the rumored matches and broken engagements of Jane Austen’s works.