If Austen was writing today, particularly if she were an indie romance author, Pride and Prejudice would be an entire series. Jane and Bingley would get a full novel, as would each of the other couples before we spun off to see who Georgiana Darcy or Anne de Bourgh end up with. Austen’s vivid secondary characters are what give rise to the endless Pride and Prejudice variations–despite the challenges of trying to emulate such an iconic writer. I have no intention of trying to write any Austen variations (at least at this time!), but I do want to look at my lessons from Pride and Prejudice: the features I’d like to carry over into my own writing.
The heroine has a network.
Elizabeth Bennet is not isolated: she has family and friends, and she consults with them. I note this because I find myself worrying about heroines who have no connections and no one to relate to—until an alpha hero comes to fulfill all their needs. I can speculate that working within a tightly limited word count may leave authors without room in the narrative to develop side characters to act as confidantes for the H/h—unless they are planning to use the side characters as part of a couple in future books, but it doesn’t seem healthy. I’ve also seen it turn up in obviously unhealthy ways: I definitely tossed a romance novel last year after the hero speculated on page about how he could isolate the heroine and make sure she had no one to depend on but him.
Love on an extended timeline.
I really liked that neither Jane and Bingley, nor Darcy and Elizabeth, fall in love immediately. Sometimes I read romance novels where the entire events of a book take place within a few weeks, or even days: meeting, loss of virginity, special license for a wedding, HEA. Sometimes we get an epilogue with children to show that the H/h really did have enough to hold the relationship together for years, but I always have my doubts. Compare to Lizzy Bennet writing about Jane and Bingley:
As yet, she cannot even be certain of the degree of her own regard, nor of its reasonableness. She has known him only a fortnight. She danced four dances with him at Meryton; she saw him one morning at his own house, and has since dined in company with him four times. This is not quite enough to make her understand his character.
You know who does get married hastily in this book? Lydia and Wickham.
No chaperones, but no unchaperoned scandal.
While reading I suddenly realized that Austen says nothing about chaperones, or very little. Darcy and Elizabeth meet privately several times at Rosings/Hunsford: he calls when she’s the only one home, or he contrives to run into her when she’s out walking. And no one has heart palpitations about it!
This is in contrast to the trope of forced marriage which I have read after the couple has been discovered alone! in the library! with a lead pipe! Okay, maybe not a lead pipe, but you know what I mean.
Perhaps part of this is Darcy’s impeccable honor and reputation. He’s not a rake; no one is going to accuse him of ravishing young ladies in the hedges. But the silly younger Bennet sisters, Catherine and Lydia, go walking a mile to town and back on the regular. They’re 17 and 15, and specifically going to find army officers, and yet there’s no ink spilled on chaperoning them through every moment of their waking days (though Lydia could likely have used one, of course).
The more I think about it, the more the use of unchaperoned shenanigans as a plot device bothers me. While seemingly plausible and convenient, it plays into the harmful stereotype that men can’t control themselves, and that women need to be protected from male lust.
The idea that if a man and a woman were alone together for ten minutes, then something must have happened to ruin her reputation… Yuck. That’s working on the assumption that all men are sexual predators like Mr B, and none are like Darcy. And of those two, I don’t see the internet regularly swooning over Mr B. I do see thoughtful posts like Jackie Horne’s thoughts about romance heroes and #metoo.
tl;dr – Here are my lessons from Pride and Prejudice:
- Give my heroines (and heroes, for that matter) fully articulated social support networks.
- Avoid a rush to the altar–unless the storyline is about making a marriage work after the ceremony.
- Write the heroes my heroines deserve, not alphaholes who ought to be arrested.