Hi there, I have a question for you! I was discussing this with my Jane Austen professor today, and I wanted to know what you think: Does it bother you when people accept Jane as simply a "Romance Novelist" like, yes, her novels have romance in them but on what level is the romance circumstantial and satirical?
I think those people like to selectively ignore that Jane Austen herself can be quoted as distancing herself entirely from the “romantic” as it was known in her time, (“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious
Romance under any other motive than to save my life, & if it were
indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at
myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished
the first chapter. No - I must keep my own style & go on in my own
way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I
should totally fail in any other.”) and also how unfair it is to then also consign her to the realm of “romance novels” in the modern era when she herself would have had no concept like unto our Harlequins and Mills & Boons. So on a genre-level, I do find calling Austen a Romance Novelist to be inaccurate and over-simplifying and downright lazy, because it’s people choosing to look at the fact that the focus of her novels are young women and that the only honourable provision for young women of that class was marriage, and so they end in marriage, but those marriages are funny, human, real, and, (we hope) happy–which was a pretty good ending, and not impossible, in Austen’s time. All her characters and plots could have been her contemporaries–her neighbours, her family, her friends. All the drama is entirely within the scope of normal human beings.
Under such a consideration, Shakespeare’s comedies are ‘comedies’ because they, too, end with marriages, and in the case of plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re full of magic and fairies and extraordinary stuff, and yet they’re not dismissed as frothy romance the way Austen’s entire canon can sometimes be. (Which, if you ever get the chance, please go and see a period-reproduction of one of Shakespeare’s comedies at the Globe theatre, because there will be enough dick-, puke-, and fart-jokes to make you realize that Shakespeare was ALSO the seedy-drugstore-pulp-fiction-novelist of his day and he L O V E D it.) I know that The Tempest and other later plays are sometimes categorized as Shakespeare’s Romances, but that was a term assigned to them by a late-Victorian academic and certainly not due to the mere fact that there was love and marriage in the plays, but more on the basis of the plays’ spectacles and themes of faith and redemption, more in keeping with that particular era’s definition of Romantic and not romantic, but that is a whole ‘nother discussion in itself.
While it does bother me that people will insist upon categorizing Austen’s works as romances (doubtless due to how adaptations have brought general awareness of her work into the mainstream consciousness,) it is not because I have any particular distaste for romances as a form. We’re all pretty aware of the general cultural dismissal of any art that is produced by or for women in particular (”chick” flicks and lit being usually uttered with distaste or at the very least a very broad assumption about the content and character of the piece being just very generally Female and therefore lacking much substance or originality…meanwhile every minute some middle-aged man’s fictionalized sepia-tinted musings on his mid-life crisis is given beard-stroking acclaim for its raw power and fresh perspective.) And I think this is where I have a lot of problems with Austen being shoved into the romance category, because of how the world in general (academia included) treats romance and women’s fiction. There is bad women’s fiction out there, but I’m sure no more than there is bad men’s fiction, and to have a narrative which does encompass stories of finding love and happily-ever-after should not be considered a mark against it, by any means.
Essentially, my view of people calling Austen a Romance Novelist is, firstly, that they are far too lazy and ignorant to even be putting themselves forward to enter into a serious discussion of Austen’s work at all; and secondly, even if by some alteration of history and literature it turned out she WAS a Romance Novelist, after all…well, why on earth should that term be presumed degrading and dismissive? Romance is wonderful.