It’s been 200 years since Jane Austen’s novels were published and yet, Jane mania is still in the air. If you don’t believe me, just look to the 12ft inflatable Mr. Darcy (eerily favoring Colin Firth) floating in London’s Hyde Park last summer. (Clearly, I’m not the only one who loves the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries.)
Modern Janeites remain captivated, but do we know why Austen’s so irresistible? Do we long for a more romantic time? Do we still have a sense of the meaning behind her novels? We tend to only emphasize the romantic plots and ignore what makes her truly remarkable–her insightful examination of human virtue.
Make no mistake, Austen exquisitely fashions a good love story and readers have been delighted for centuries with her characters who are, in the words of Mr. Bennet, “crossed in love,” as they travel a winding road to their matrimonial fate. But it’s not merely the classic romance that entices Janeites, it’s her meticulous and brilliant illumination of virtue that gives depth to her stories and characters.
Am I reading too much into these delightful works of fiction? Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre doesn’t think so. In his masterful work After Virtue, he claims, “Jane Austen is in a crucial way…the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues.” It might sound dry to consider Austen’s novels in this way, but Austen’s philosophy of virtue is what makes her so exciting and alluring to us in the 21st century.
In an era that finds a discussion of virtue laughable, Austen hearkens back to a world in which character is prized above charm, and constancy trumps a magnetic personality. Heroines like Elizabeth Bennet demonstrate that virtue and attractive spunk aren’t mutually exclusive. And as we can see by her portrayal of characters like Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, Austen is more impressed by strength of character than the most alluring and sparkling charm (ahem, Mary Crawford.)
These days, the best modern romcoms share some basic plot points with Miss Austen. Think Pride and Prejudice and You’ve Got Mail, complete with a few Elizabeth Bennet/Mr. Darcy references in Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’s banter. The two romantic leads dislike each other at the beginning of the movie and then fall in love by the time the credits roll. And then we have modern revamps of Austen plots such as Clueless (loosely) based on Austen’s Emma. But typically the plot lines and the characters of romcoms don’t overlap. And I don’t think I’m the only one who finds most of them forgettable. What is it about Miss Austen’s works that keep us coming back for more while most modern romantic comedies end up unsatisfying?
For the most part, the leading ladies can’t hold a candle to Austen’s heroines, but it’s the male leads in modern romantic comedies who really flop. Austen’s noble heroes have little in common with these heartthrob charmers (at least I think we’re supposed to find them charming?). Most romcoms seem to have one of two “types” as the male lead. You have the Irresponsible Loser who becomes somewhat reformed in order to win the girl (think Fool’s Gold with Matthew Mcconaughey and Kate Hudson, on second thought don’t think Fool’s Gold because it was dreadful). Or you have the Egotistical Womanizing Jerk the leading lady despises but can’t deny her inexplicable attraction to. (Think The Ugly Truth with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. Dreadful is probably too generous a descriptor.)
It’s almost comical to compare Mr. Knightly or Fitzwilliam Darcy to the cads being paraded as heroes in modern romcoms. But what makes them different? Austen’s main men possess virtue that only fully revealed over time and in context of their community, something difficult to grasp in our quick-paced, isolated culture.
Only after visiting his estate of Pemberley does Elizabeth get a better picture of Darcy’s true character. Sure, touring the beautiful mansion and extensive grounds didn’t hurt her impression. But the description from his housekeeper of Darcy’s kindness and goodness also began to open her eyes. I’ve always heard that you can tell a lot about a man from how he treats the server at a restaurant. Perhaps the same is true about wealthy Regency era British guys and how they treat their housekeepers. Treating someone with respect and kindness when there’s nothing in it for you reveals good character.
Darcy’s selflessness and devotion come to the surface near the end of the novel when he saves the Bennet family from scandal and ruin at great personal cost to himself. Time, community, and action are what reveal the soul of Austen’s heroes.
In the fullness of time the villain, however, reveals himself to be exactly the opposite of the hero. Although often charming and attractive upon first impression (unlike the aloof and at first disagreeable Darcy), the rake is slowly unmasked by how his selfish decisions impact his relationship to his community.
Take Sense and Sensibility, a novel with two leading ladies, the prudent Elinor Dashwood and her passionate younger sister, Marianne. The rake of the novel is Willoughby, a handsome and charming young man with a love for poetry who wins the heart of the impetuous Marianne on their first meeting. Everyone finds him pleasant and delightful. But when his family cuts him off after it comes to light that he fathered a child out of wedlock and abandoned the mother, he breaks Marianne’s heart and marries a far wealthier young lady for financial gain. His charm concealed his true character of extreme selfishness and weakness.
The star of the modern romcom is quite similar to “the cad” type found in Austen’s tales, like Wickam of Pride and Prejudice, Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility, or Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park—handsome, charming, and selfish. Willoughby literally sweeps Marianne off her feet the day they meet because she’s sprained her ankle. A perfect meet-cute for the modern romcom, but the superficial romance doesn’t merit true love.
By the end of an Austen novel we despise the selfish rake character, but the modern romcom makes The Irresponsible Loser or the Selfish Womanizing Jerk the hero, and attempts to convince us that the successful, clever, and responsible heroine will be happy sharing a life with the (hopefully) reformed male lead. If this is the fare offered to us, no wonder we re-read Austen year after year and wait eagerly for each new film adaption!
We’re so entrenched in the modern narrative of infatuation parading as love that it’s hard to spot a story of true love when we see it. Colonel Brandon, the real hero in Sense and Sensibility seems old and boring to us in comparison to the dashing, poetic young Willoughby. Like Marianne, it takes us until the end of the novel to see Brandon for what he is: a man worth spending your life with. How can we be bored? Is a patient, selfless love that puts the beloved’s happiness above his own desires not romantic enough for us? I think it’s hard for a modern reader not to think, “But if only Willoughby had REALLY reformed.” (Or in Mansfield Park, if only Henry Crawford had really reformed.) But unlike the modern reader, at least Marianne is clear-headed enough to see that after Willoughby’s true colors emerged, the only thing more painful than being abandoned by him would have been to be married to someone so selfish.
In the excellent and beautiful film The Painted Veil, based on the novel by M. Somerset Maugham (which I haven’t read and differs from the film on some major plot points), a young doctor and his unfaithful wife move to rural China amidst seemingly insurmountable marital strife. She finds him dull and lifeless, he finds her silly and selfish. Yet, as she sees him through the eyes of his patients and the community at large, she begins to respect his skill, wisdom, and compassion.
Their relationship begins to change from spite to warm friendship. She has an epiphany when a male friend explains to her that his lover is attached to him because he is “a good man.” She scoffs, “No woman ever fell in love with a man for his virtue!” And suddenly she realizes that she has done just that and it is her husband’s character that has garnered her respect slowly and deeply won her love.
We may claim that virtue won’t win us over. But our love for Austen belies us.
We’ve been shown cardboard cut outs of love, when we want the real thing. We’ve been fed a fast-food version of romance and we want a fine meal with a glass of red wine. Jane Austen does not remain popular because she wrote the type for the modern romance but because she writes the antithesis of it: a love based on virtue instead of infatuation. That’s where Austen delivers and why she’ll remain a guide to the human heart and soul for another 200 years.