Jane Austen wrote courtship novels: this is a truth universally acknowledged, or perhaps an assumption universally unchallenged. But are they? There are courtships in the novels, but are they in any overarching sense primarily “about” courtship? Or is the form of the comic novel just the mold into which Austen pours a more complex and shifting amalgam of love story, bildungsroman, satire, and parody, all the time subverting the insistent masculine gaze? In this paper I will explore the senses in which the novels are and are not about courtship, and touch upon the effects this persistent belief has on her reputation and reception in the twenty-first century.
Did Jane Austen write courtship novels? Jason Solinger calls the Austen novels “a body of courtship narratives whose heroines, critics have long argued, possess the sensibility and literacy that have come to define the modern individual” (163). Sarah R. Morrison seems to agree: “In each of the novels, the narrative interest is concentrated in the central story of courtship—in whether or not the heroine gets her man—and the novel ends with a marriage, but this is not to say as much about the novels as we might think” (340). It certainly doesn’t say a great deal about the novels to say that they are courtship novels, but I want to examine claims like these more closely because I am beginning to think that calling them courtship novels, and assuming that “the central story” is in fact focused on “whether or not the heroine gets her man,” is extremely misleading. Relegating her to this limited field contributes to a continuing habit of belittling Austen’s achievement, especially in the broader context of popular culture.
What is a courtship novel? Katherine Sobba Green’s book on the subject covers novels from 1740 to 1820, and although she doesn’t venture a neat definition, she has this to say:
What distinguished courtship novels from other contemporary narratives was that thematically they offered a revisionist view: women, no longer merely unwilling victims, became heroines with significant, though modest, prerogatives of choice and action. . . . More often than not . . . a courtship novel began with the heroine’s coming out and ended with her wedding. It detailed a young woman’s entrance into society, the problems arising from that situation, her courtship, and finally her choice (almost always fortunate) among suitors. (2)
This is a description, rather than a definition. “Courtship” is defined in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “The activity or period of courting a woman with a view to marriage.” I would be reluctant to use the term “courtship novel” to describe definitively any novel that does not have courtship as one of its central and animating themes. I would expect the heroine to have one or more men actively playing court to her throughout the novel. And I don’t think that any of Austen’s novels quite fit that standard.
In making this claim, I am not contesting the fact that Austen’s novels are in form romances in the tradition of Shakespearean comedy. As David Scott Kastan writes, Shakespearean comedy “offers not an image of a perfect world . . . but images of a world whose imperfections, however improbably, yield to the comic logic” (576). Similarly, Austen may undercut and ironize the “happy ever after” ending in some of the novels, but she never denies her readers the satisfaction of knowing that the heroines she makes us love will be sent out into the world beyond the novel with the worthiest and most loving husbands she can imagine for them. I would even add that becoming ready for entry into a happy marriage is one of the main themes of all of Austen’s novels. But it is the assiduous attention of the hero to gain the heroine’s hand throughout the courtship novel that I think is the missing element.
I do not intend an implied comparison with Austen’s predecessors or contemporaries. Following Green, I am not claiming that Austen makes a decisive break with the tradition. “Like her literary forbears who wrote women’s courtship novels,” Green argues, “Austen interrogated the terms and practices of the marriage market—the commodification of women by society—and like them she suggested alternatives to the subject positions society made available to women in her period” (153). Where I part company from Green is in the use of the term “courtship novel” as an adequate description of any of Austen’s six completed novels.
The best way to investigate this contention seems to be to take each of the six novels in turn and test it against the proposition that it is chiefly concerned with the activity of a man paying court to a woman with a view to marriage.
Northanger Abbey: Parody
Catherine goes to Bath and meets Henry Tilney. Does he court her? Yes, I think perhaps he does, in his own idiosyncratic way. He asks her to dance:
After chatting some time on such matters as naturally arose from the objects around them, he suddenly addressed her with—“I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.” (25)
As Michael Kramp points out, Henry Tilney is aware of the chivalric notions of courtship in this passage:
Austen juxtaposes “naturally” occurring subjects to the chivalric niceties in which Henry is quite skilled. He has learned that a proper English man must make these inquiries of a new female acquaintance, and while he is able to perform this task, Austen highlights the comedic quality of his language. (46-47)
Although Kramp rather ponderously indicates that he is aware of the comic nature of this scene, he doesn’t register Catherine’s puzzled reaction: she “turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh” (NA 26). Engaged as he is in an examination of the rational nature of the masculinity of Austen’s heroes, Kramp is no doubt justified in concentrating on how such passages show that Henry “carefully regulates his susceptibility to romantic passions” (51). I would like to give more prominence, however, to the parodic nature of Henry’s courtship behavior and its unpropitious nature as the beginning of a courtship. This parody of courtly or courteous behavior is not an especially promising approach: it confuses the naïve Catherine, and it takes a little while for her to get accustomed to Henry’s way of talking. Comically, the tables are turned when he visits Fullerton at the end of the novel: in his embarrassment and confusion, “it was not just at that moment in his power to say any thing to the purpose. Returning in silence to his seat, therefore, he remained for some minutes most civilly answering all Mrs. Morland’s common remarks about the weather and the roads” (242).
Meanwhile, there is another suitor for Catherine’s hand: John Thorpe—so inept at courtship that Catherine completely fails to notice when he proposes. The most assiduous courting behavior in Northanger Abbey, however, is General Tilney’s attention to Catherine while he believes her to be a young woman of fortune. He engages in exaggerated courtesy and flattery in the hope of securing a rich wife for his son. That he imputes the most sophisticated tastes and the most delicate sensibility to her is part of the rich vein of humor that runs through this novel. Catherine is quite unmoved by the outrage of “‘a patched-on bow’” (213), nor is she particularly impressed by the General’s pineapples. Meanwhile, Henry stands to one side, slightly embarrassed by his father’s ill-judged blandishments, which he satirizes behind his father’s back until Catherine is abruptly sent home from Northanger. When that happens, he finally becomes outraged enough to act on his own behalf, follow her, and, now against his father’s wishes, ask her to marry him.
There is more going on in Northanger Abbey than these courtships. Of course the novel is also a bildungsroman in which the extremely young Catherine learns the difference between fact and fiction, acquires some interpersonal skills, and becomes a better judge of character. I can’t deny that courtship does fairly consistently provide the engine of the plot: if General Tilney had not been courting Catherine (for Henry), he wouldn’t have invited her to Northanger. And the novel does start with a heroine “coming out” and end with her marriage, although, as will be the pattern throughout the novels, the proposal, engagement, and wedding are described in a perfunctory way: at the end “Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang and every body smiled” (252). But is a parody of a courtship novel, a satire upon the courtship novel, actually a courtship novel? The novel’s final sentence confirms the degree to which Austen is playing with the form:
To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced, that the General’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience. (252)
Sense and Sensibility: Secrets and Ambiguities
In many of Austen’s novels, Morrison points out, “the heroes are not presented as the professed lovers of the heroines. Rather the heroine spends the better part of the novel observing the hero’s conduct in relations with others, very often as he pays court to another woman” (344). In Sense and Sensibility, with its two heroines, the courtships are often obscured or not what they seem—a recurrent theme in the later novels.
When Elinor meets Edward Ferrars, there is clearly mutual attraction, but nothing is declared. Elinor believes that they understand each other, but they do not come to an “understanding.” And in this novel with its apparent schema of sensibility versus sense, Elinor’s situation parallels Marianne’s with Willoughby, though Marianne’s behavior is less circumspect in this ambiguous situation. Each of the sisters undergoes a terrible shock when she finds out that the man supposedly in love with her is engaged to another woman. The contrast between them lies in the different ways they react to the news. Although the relationship between the sisters is the animating theme of the novel, the narrative echoing is subtle enough not to be obtrusive.
Whether Willoughby is actually courting Marianne is left uncertain throughout the course of the narrative, as Sarah Ailwood points out. We, like Elinor, are exposed to various opinions: Willoughby is the perfect lover and is in love with Marianne; Willoughby never loved Marianne; Willoughby is an utter villain and seducer of young women; Willoughby is a weak and vain young man who nevertheless has strong feelings and is to be pitied because he has lost the woman he loves as a result of “‘those false ideas of the necessity of riches, which I was naturally inclined to feel, and expensive society had increased’” (323).
Colonel Brandon’s courtship of Marianne provides a contrast with Willoughby’s. It is telling that though he “heard her without being in raptures,” he “paid her only the compliment of attention” when she plays the piano at the Middletons’ (35). Willoughby is more actively musical and earns her love partly by sharing not only her tastes but also her pursuits. Although Brandon may seem calm, elderly, and beyond passion to Marianne, we soon discover, with Elinor, that he has a past as passionate as Willoughby’s. Indeed, during the course of the novel, though “offstage,” they meet in a duel over the daughter of Colonel Brandon’s first love, Eliza, whom Willoughby has apparently seduced (211). Colonel Brandon is in fact every bit as passionate as Willoughby, but he has learned prudence from bitter experience. Brandon courts Marianne in a sense, though without much hope, by putting himself at her service, by being dependable and stable and helpful: he, “whatever he might feel, acted with all the firmness of a collected mind” during Marianne’s illness (312), being “a companion whose judgment would guide, whose attendance must relieve, and whose friendship might sooth” Elinor at this moment of terrible anxiety (311-12). It is typical of Marianne’s nature that not until Elinor and Edward are married does “a conviction of [Brandon’s] fond attachment to herself . . . at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else—burst on her” (378). “[W]hat could she do” but agree to marry him? So, yes, he courts her throughout the novel, but Marianne is as obtuse about the fact as Catherine Morland to John Thorpe’s attentions, though for different reasons.
Because Edward Ferrars is secretly engaged, he is not courting Elinor though he is clearly drawn to her. He, too, is dependent on the whims of a female relative—there are parallels between Edward and Willoughby, just as between Elinor and Marianne—though in his case his dependence actually works in his favor, as the fortune-hunting Lucy Steele abandons him for his more promising brother when his mother disinherits him. To say that Edward has “courted” Elinor, however, doesn’t seem right. In his secretiveness he is not actually courting her. Once the secret of his engagement is out, he stands by Lucy because it’s the honourable thing to do though it will ruin his life. Finally, when Lucy throws him over for Robert, he and Elinor come to their understanding pretty well straight away, although Austen archly assures us that “in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told” (361).
So there are courtships: the aborted courtship of Marianne by Willoughby; Brandon’s eventually successful, though muted, pursuit of her; Edward’s courtship of Lucy Steele, a mistake of the past that he believes he must live with. But I am not the first critic to observe that the important relationship in Sense and Sensibility is that between the sisters. The emotional intensity of the novel lies mainly in Elinor’s devotion to Marianne, and the engine of the plot has as much to do with their economic deprivation as their marriage prospects.
Pride and Prejudice: Unintended Courtship
One might say the same about Pride and Prejudice. While in Sense and Sensibility a family of women is thrown on the mercy of uncaring male relatives, a situation rife with melodramatic possibilities (not all of which Austen exploits, of course), in Pride and Prejudice this catastrophe is in the future, but vividly imagined by at least one character. One way of viewing Pride and Prejudice is that it’s a novel about a mother assiduously (though usually counter-productively) courting husbands for her daughters.
In Charles Bingley we have another young man (like Willoughby) whose courtship of the heroine’s sister is cut short by pressures from friends and family. This aborted courtship is certainly an important element in the plot and in the emotional logic of the novel. Elizabeth’s deep and abiding love of Jane is a far more cogent reason for her prejudice against Darcy than his supposed mistreatment of Wickham. And Darcy’s rationale for persuading Bingley to drop Jane is, he explains in his letter to Elizabeth, “‘that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [your mother], by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father’” (198).
George Wickham has no such qualms about the family, and flirts with Elizabeth—it hardly qualifies as courtship—until a richer young lady comes on the scene. Elizabeth’s philosophical attitude to this abandonment shows how little her affections or expectations had been engaged. She tells her aunt, “‘Last Christmas you were afraid of his marrying me, because it would be imprudent; and now, because he is trying to get a girl with only ten thousand pounds, you want to find out that he is mercenary. . . . A man in distressed circumstances has not time for all those elegant decorums which other people may observe’” (153). It is interesting that she doesn’t see her own potentially “distressed circumstances” as a reason to pursue a loveless marriage. In any case, in the end there is neither decorum, nor prudence, nor probably anything as deliberate as courtship, in Wickham’s choice of a wife. Elizabeth’s private pronouncement on his union with Lydia is that it was brought about only “because their passions were stronger than their virtue” (312).
William Collins is the most determined and ultimately successful courter (courtier?) in Pride and Prejudice. He comes to Longbourn with the sole purpose of finding a wife, and, having no particular clue about what makes a suitable mate, he thinks he might as well marry one of his cousins who live in the house he will inherit when their father dies. According to the rather catty summary by the narrator, “This was his plan of amends—of atonement—for inheriting their father’s estate; and he thought it an excellent one, full of eligibility and suitableness, and excessively generous and disinterested on his own part” (70). As he doesn’t really care which of the cousins he marries, when Mrs. Bennet tells him that Jane might soon become engaged (indulging in the very kind of behavior that postpones that engagement indefinitely), he “had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire” (71). Elizabeth, more perceptive than some of her predecessor heroines, suspects Mr. Collins’s intentions in advance and predicts the trouble her determined refusal will cause between her mother and her. Of course, he then meets his match in the equally determined and assiduous courtee, Charlotte Lucas.
Mr. Collins’s courtships serve the plot: if Mr. Collins hadn’t come a-courting to Longbourn, Charlotte would not have married him and invited Elizabeth to visit her at Hunsford parsonage, placing her in Mr. Darcy’s path—or vice versa—once more.
And what, then, of Darcy’s courtship of Elizabeth? Although he is interested, before he sees her in a situation removed from her objectionable relations, he tries his best not to court her. His letter compares his feelings for her with the situation between Jane and Bingley:
the want of connection could not be so great an evil to my friend as to me.—But there were other causes of repugnance;—causes which, though still existing, and existing to an equal degree in both instances, I had myself endeavoured to forget, because they were not immediately before me.” (198)
The class difference is added to the “repugnance” caused by her parents and her younger sisters. “‘In vain have I struggled,’” he tells her, in one of the most famous proposals in the history of literature (189).
Despite his struggle he does court Elizabeth because the strength of his feelings overcomes his scruples. After she rejects him, he once again tries not to court her, this time out of courtesy, but as luck (or clever plotting) would have it, the very impropriety that has caused him to find marriage with her repugnant gives him the opportunity to provide Brandon-like assistance to her family and finally prove his worth as a suitor—although, if his protest is to be believed, he hopes his intervention will be kept secret from Elizabeth. The successful courtship takes place during a walk on the afternoon of his visit to Longbourn with Bingley (now engaged to Jane) towards the end of the novel, and consists of the following speech:
You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.” (366)
Extremely romantic, and surely the dénouement of the novel—but I don’t know whether this moment of courtship makes Pride and Prejudice a courtship novel.
Mansfield Park: Unnecessary Courtship
Mansfield Park is another novel in which the heroine watches the hero pay court to another woman, while at the same time being courted by another man whom she has no interest in marrying.
The possibility that Fanny and one of his sons might fall in love is one of the objections that Sir Thomas raises when Mrs. Norris first suggests that she might come and live at Mansfield Park. Since it is her idea, she can’t allow any objection to it to carry weight—“‘breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister,’” she insists (7)—and since she is always wrong, we can only wait for Sir Thomas’s prediction to come true. It does, of course, but only after a series of events convinces him that, rather than being a disaster to avoid, having Fanny as a daughter-in-law is something very much to be desired.
E. J. Clery points out that “if plot alone were taken into consideration any of the novels could be reconceived as fables of male self-realization” (334). This observation seems particularly true of Mansfield Park. Edmund is a part of the heroine’s world from the beginning of the action, and, mainly—but not exclusively—through Fanny’s eyes, we witness him struggling with his love for Mary Crawford. He pays court to her almost by accident at first, visiting the parsonage “every day to be indulged with his favourite instrument” (64-65), the harp. Soon “[w]ithout studying the business . . . or knowing what he was about, Edmund was beginning at the end of a week of such intercourse, to be a good deal in love” (65). The drama of their mutual attraction and the conflict caused by his determination to pursue a career in the church despite Mary’s contempt for the country clergyman and her obvious unsuitability as a parson’s wife is a deep emotional thread in the novel. It is as deep, perhaps, as Fanny’s mute adoration of Edmund and the pain she feels at witnessing his courtship of Mary. Languishing in the wilderness, or purgatory, of Portsmouth she receives a letter from Edmund, written to her as an intimate confidante in his courtship of Mary: “‘were I refused, I must bear it; and till I am, I can never cease to try for her’” (422).
Henry Crawford is an assiduous and clearly experienced suitor, but like Edmund he is surprised by the strength of his own feelings. He begins courting Fanny (i.e., pursuing her with the idea of marriage) only after spending some time deliberately trifling with her. His initial lack of success only makes him keener, and the rather worldly narrator of Mansfield Park observes that, “Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward”—that result depending, also, on Edmund’s marrying Mary: “when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together” (467).
When Henry’s courtship of Fanny is abruptly terminated and Edmund’s eyes are open to the faults of Mary Crawford, the narrator once again cheats the reader of the satisfactions of a detailed description of the courtship of Fanny by Edmund:
Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well—or a great deal better; . . . and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love. (470)
Poor Edmund! He doesn’t realize that there is no persuasion required and that any arts of courtship he might feel that he needs to deploy to win Fanny are as utterly redundant as our narrator believes a detailed account of them to be:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people.—I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire. (470)
Edmund’s happiness is conjectured to be “delightful,” but again the narrator deliberately abstains from describing Fanny’s: “there was a happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope” (471). And the narrator can’t resist a dig at Sir Thomas. His pleasure at the match is placed explicitly “in contrast with his early opinion on the subject,” a contrast such as “time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours’ entertainment” (472).
Is Mansfield Park a courtship novel? It seems a very trivial term for such a complex and serious work. In a way, my unease with that term seems confirmed by the discussion between Mary and Edmund about whether or not Fanny is “out.” The courtship novel, as Green suggests, begins with the heroine “coming out” (2). Edmund refuses to define Fanny in relationship to such a starting point: “‘My cousin is grown up. She has the age and sense of a woman, but the outs and not outs are beyond me’” (49). Nothing in the ensuing discussion between Tom Bertram and Mary contradicts Edmund’s statement, which stands like a manifesto for the novel: Fanny is not of the fashionable world, where adulthood is merely a matter of social form. Austen keeps her apart from that world and endues her with a completely separate sense of values, shared only by Edmund—and even he is tempted away from them by Mary’s influence. Fanny remains unchanged: once she has been formed (“in so great a degree . . . by his care” ), she loves Edmund steadfastly, in full awareness, during all the changes in his affections and the shifting allegiances and alliances of the other characters. There is no need for him to court her.
Emma: Mystery and Masculinity
Who is courting whom in Emma? Claudia Johnson points out how “masculine” Emma is: “The novel basically accepts as attractive and legitimate Emma’s forcefulness” (196). Emma doesn’t express this unfeminine assertiveness, however, by courting a husband but by declaring that she is better off without one: “‘My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all’” (84). Emma flirts with Frank Churchill but, taking quite a masculine view of their relationship, at no stage plans to marry him if he were to propose, even though she believes she might be a little in love with him. Perhaps the person Emma actually courts most directly is Harriet. (Johnson also points out that “a lively and explicit interest in the sexual irregularities of Emma Woodhouse has been the stuff of ‘establishment’ criticism for almost fifty years now” .)
Emma consciously observes, rather than experiences or engages in, courtship. For her, courtship plots are endlessly fascinating, and she delights in inventing them. She is, of course, courted by Mr. Elton while thinking that he is courting Harriet, and she is quite content to believe that Frank is courting her, when what he is doing is erecting an extremely effective smokescreen to hide his engagement to Jane Fairfax, whom he has already courted successfully at Weymouth. George Knightley courts no one, although Mrs. Weston thinks he might be interested in Jane. His proposal to Emma is “the work of the moment, the immediate effect of what he heard, on his feelings” (432). He does think he will have to court her: the discovery that she doen’t love Frank “had given birth to the hope, that, in time, he might gain her affection himself;—but it had been no present hope—he had only, in the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment, aspired to be told that she did not forbid his attempt to attach her” (432). And what does Emma say? “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.—She said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself” (431). Emma’s habitual assertiveness makes this formulation startling. I have always found it slightly odd that she becomes suddenly so coquettish, inviting Mr. Knightley to act the anxious suitor, so much out of character for him. But even so, it all takes place “[w]ithin half an hour” (432) and within the span of two pages: hardly enough to qualify Emma as a “courtship novel.” The most assiduous courtship in Emma is that of Robert Martin for Harriet. If their story had been the main plot of the novel, it would indeed be a courtship novel, but instead it is a mystery novel, a bildungsroman, a romantic comedy, a novel of social realism—everything but.
Persuasion: Hope Renewed
Persuasion is another novel in which the heroine isn’t thinking of marriage, or at least has abandoned the idea of it. Frederick Wentworth courted Anne, no doubt, seven years earlier, and they were to be married, before Lady Russell persuaded her to break the engagement. She has since been courted, unsuccessfully, by Charles Musgrove, who then transferred his attentions to her sister Mary. When she meets Wentworth again, he is, like Mr. Collins, looking for a wife: “He had a heart for either of the Miss Musgroves, if they could catch it; a heart, in short, for any pleasing young woman who came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot” (61). Slowly, via an unwise and ill-fated courtship of Louisa Musgrove, he comes to realize the error of his ways, and that realization is the hidden engine of the narrative. Clery calls Austen “the founder of the modern romance narrative, as the first to recognize the extraordinary narrative power of keeping the hero’s point of view in reserve” (339). We are accorded the occasional glimpse into the hero’s mind—such is the benefit of third-person omniscient narrative—but we are never sure about the way he feels until the heroine is.
Anne’s cousin, Mr. Elliot, certainly courts her, but his attentions are never likely to displace the attractions of Frederick Wentworth: “There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable” (161). Once again, as in Mansfield Park, the heroine witnesses the hero courting another woman, while being courted, irritatingly, by a man in whom she has no interest. We know from the cancelled chapter of Persuasion that Mr. Elliot’s courtship was originally to be the hinge on which the love plot turned: Wentworth was deputed by Admiral Croft to offer to give up the lease of Kellynch Hall so Mr. Elliot could live there when he and Anne were married. Austen thought better of this rather clunky plot manoeuvre and replaced it with the magnificent scene at the White Hart, taking Persuasion even further away from the traditions of the courtship novel.
Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. As far as the plots are concerned, Austen’s novels are all in the tradition of romantic comedy, in which young people find a spouse at the end of the story—but not in the sense in which Mr. Collins finds a wife or Lady Bertram has found or caught a husband. For Austen, the plots involve finding the best possible mate for the best possible life, and that end involves much more than just making a match. To call Austen’s novels courtship novels seems to me unbearably reductive. According to Claire Harman, “the association of Austen with highly successful books and films like the Bridget Jones series, or Sex and the City . . . has led to her novels being read as guides to Finding Mr. Right” (253). And Andrew Davies, though in most respects a perhaps excessively “conscientious screenwriter” (249), has not helped, with his imaginative fleshing-out of the narrative in his 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, cementing for a whole generation Austen’s reputation as the author of simple Cinderella-style love stories that can be comprehended without actually reading a word. It seems to me unfortunate for scholars to perpetuate this reputation, however unintentionally, by continuing to use the term “courtship novel” to describe Austen’s works.
Austen was well aware of the conventions she was undermining. Sarah Morrison argues that
Austen makes use of the trappings of earlier novelists, but as has often been noted, she deliberately reduces, or flattens, such elements as the stock seduction-plot. The rather whimsical note Austen strikes in those famous concluding chapters and the narrator’s sudden discreet withdrawal as we seem to be gearing up for the love-scene contribute to a pattern that deflates the love story in the interest of larger thematic concerns. (344)
There are essential ordeals to be undergone and lessons to be subjected to, on the part of both parties, before the match can take place. Courtship, the deliberate pursuit of a woman with a view to marriage, is more often than not blocked during most of the narrative by prior commitments, financial constraints, or, even more obdurately, lack of self-knowledge and prejudice. Kathryn Sutherland writes, “If Austen’s fiction is a sustained dialogue with and allusive critique of the contemporary novel, it is so on terms which endorse the genre’s high social and moral purpose even as they satirize its more extravagant effects” (250). The six complete novels of Jane Austen are novels about learning to live and to love, not only the person one will marry but the life and the connections they bring with them—“Marriage,” Morrison notes, “is only one tie among many” (344). Happily-ever-after is a facile idea that Austen presents to us with one hand while introducing enough complexity and irony with the other to make us understand the inadequacy of the myth.
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