Everything is Jane Austen these days. Or that’s what the BBC would like us to believe. Yes, I have been eagerly sucked into this romantic pleasure, turning on my TV every Sunday to watch Masterpiece Theater televise Austen’s novels. I am swept away by costumes, love triangles, and the saga of 19th century female survival. I can’t help it. I love this stuff regardless of my feminist sensibilities. The prospect of historical romance is alluring, and Austen’s a master at presenting a formula for True Love.
Some say, little has changed since Jane Austen’s day. In a behind the scenes interview, Masterpiece Theater compared Austen’s novels to Sex in the City. At first I was offended by the connection. I saw it as a degradation of Austen’s intelligence. But now, I can’t stop thinking of the Bravo reality show, Millionaire Matchmaker, where Patti Stanger, founder of the Millionaire's Club, matches wealthy men with their dream girls.
The sentiments expressed on Millionaire Matchmaker resonate freakishly with the courtship scene in Edwardian England. I urge you to go to the Bravo TV website and check out Patty’s commandments for dating. In them, women are told that on a first date they should be engaging, act like a lady, let the man lead conversation, and not get intimate. Have we progressed since Austen’s time?
We all know that in 19th century England, women’s hopes for marriage revolved around financial security. Love was often left to the lower classes—people who had little money to lose—or was an added bonus to an advantageous marriage. Luckily, many things have changed for women since Austen’s time, but clearly others have not, including a sentiment that wealth and marriage are keys to happiness.
Last week as I watched Pride and Prejudice, I moaned to my boyfriend, I want to be Elizabeth Bennet! He looked at me askance and said, really? Her life is so boring. And it’s true. The appeal, and danger, of Austen’s novels is that they paint a world where a woman’s goals are to end up happily secure in love and finances. And this formula is compelling, and should be looked at critically.
I certainly don’t want to be shut up in the house waiting for the next ball, or stuck submitting my profile to the likes of Patty Stanger. But I do want happiness. A balance must be achieved. I’m not quite willing to give up Jane Austen, but I do want to point out our continued social pressure (going strong over 200 years after Austen’s death) to “marry well.”
So here’s to Valentines Day, romance novels, and genuine relationships. We don’t need a millionaire matchmaker, or wealthy uncle to introduce us to Mr. or Ms. right. Let's be our intelligent selves. I think Austen would approve.