Friday, July 18, 2014

Jane Austen and Romance Readers

Both popular and scholarly works on the history of romance often point to the novels of Jane Austen as a point of origin for the romance genre. For example, Austen's name tops the list on the romancewiki page "Key Names in Romance History," while the Wikipedia entry "romance novel" names Austen "a pioneer of the genre." And in the more scholarly A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis uses Austen's Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the key elements of the romance novel, terming Austen's book "The Best Romance Novel Ever Written" (75). Readers who love romance, then, are often assumed to also love Jane Austen's works.

It's an assumption that I myself took for granted, until coming across more than a few romance writers who admitted (some shamefacedly, some with aplomb or even pride) that they had never read anything by Austen, or hadn't been able to finish an Austen novel that they had once started. Others claimed to love Austen, but only knew her from the many film adaptations of her works; if, inspired by their film viewing, they had gone on to check out the original from their library, many found themselves returning the volume, uninspired by prose far different than that they were used to finding in their contemporary romances.

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra, c 1810
 National Portrait Gallery
Do all romance readers love Jane Austen? Only those who enjoy historical romance? Or has the genre moved so far away from its roots as to make its origins not that palatable even to readers who love the genre in its 21st century forms, including the historical?

After the question of Jane Austen and contemporary romance reader preferences came up in the comments section of a recent RNFF post, one RNFF reader suggested conducting an informal poll. Great idea, I thought. So...

If you love reading genre romance, I'd welcome your responses to these two questions:

1. Have you read any books by Jane Austen? If so, did you enjoy them? Why or why not?
2. Are you primarily a historical romance reader? Or do you prefer other romance genres?

If I get enough responses to make the findings more than just anecdotal, I'll report back about them in a future post. 


  1. 1. Yes. And yes. I read P&P in high school English and then went on to devour the rest of her books. I read them all and I have seen at least all of the modern film adaptations. I still reread P&P at least annually and Emma every few years. I love them because Austen can do wit and banter and satire like almost no one else. She's comedic without being slapstick or gross-out the way a lot of contemporary writers do humor. And yet, she always manages to make the book mean something, which is also something you don't always find in modern romance.

    2. Up until fairly recently, I was primarily a historical romance reader. That has changed largely because I have gotten increasingly frustrated with the sub-genre for myriad reasons. I'll spare you that, but at this point I'm probably enjoying more contemporary erotic romance than anything else.

    Great idea! Can't wait to see what others say!

  2. 1. Yes: P&P, S&S, Northanger Abbey, Emma and my favourite, Persuasion. I feel that in comparison with Persuasion, all the others (except perhaps Sense & Sensibility) pale almost into insignificance. I also watch them all on film and tv, as they come out. - I can see, however, why people might dislike P&P. Elizabeth has a smugness that can be grating. Mrs Bennet is ridiculed although her intentions are entirely honourable: to keep her daughters and herself out of the poorhouse. It's all very well for Elizabeth to spurn Mr Collins, but by doing that she does - potentially - condemn herself, her sisters and her sisters to penury. Way to go, Lizzie.

    2. Historical fiction, yes. Historical romance, if it takes the historical setting seriously. I hardly ever read contemporary romance.

  3. Yes, all of them, including Lady Susan, her most atypical work, featuring a protag who isn't nice. P&P is my favorite, one of the few books that my husband and I quote at each other. I enjoyed all of them because of Austen's wit, style, biting social commentary, and, in the best examples, her extraordinary control of pacing and tone.

    I read voraciously in many genres. Within romance, I prefer SF-romance and paranormals, though I read a fair number of historical romances and contemporaries.

  4. I've read most, possibly all, of her books. Being an avid (I think historical) romance reader in HS, I did a paper in my AP English class on her. I've always viewed Austen novels as much more than romance novels and can definitely see why many romance readers don't like her. I also think that people (in general, myself included) have a hard time with the slower pacing of classic novels (and also some classic movies). I think you have to enjoy reading for the sake of reading rather than to get to the point of the story to enjoy Austen. Reading Austen is more work than reading mass-market stuff. I like Austen for the romance but also for complexity of the stories, the character development, and the social commentary.

    I tend to prefer historical romance and SF/paranormal romance but also have liked a lot of contemporary. I've gone through phases. The reason I prefer historical is because I get less frustrated by the gender stereotypes and roles when I can tell myself that it is a reflection of the era (regardless of whether any of it is accurate or not).

    Rather than Jane Austen, I've heard Georgette Heyer referred to as the mother of the modern romance novel.

  5. 1. Yes, I've read them all and, except for Mansfield Park, multiple times. However, the only one I read as a romance is P&P. The other I love as much, but mainly for the humour and the characters and the relationships.

    2. I've never been exclusively, or even primarily, a reader of HR. I've always read all sorts of romance subgenres, and none of them are particular favourites. I'm reading less HR in the last few years. I still have a few authors that are autobuys (Courtney Milan, Mary Balogh, Sherry Thomas), but most of the new authors I try end up being busts.

  6. Yes, and yes. But I read Jane Austen well before I read any romance, and I do wonder whether Jane A would be classified as "romance" were her books to be published now. I know they fulfil the requirements for the RWA definition, bit they aren't typical romances.

    Although I love historical romances, I do read in other genres. I don't like SF or paranormal. I like contemporaries and m/m romances. I also love romances which include spies (especially in historical romances) and mystery (e.g. Josh Lanyon).

  7. I love Austin, more than most modern romances.

    I confess, though, that when I first read her (in high school) I didn't really understand the humour in her stories. I didn't understand that she was poking fun at her characters, so when I read their actions without that lens, I found some of their behaviour impenetrable. I still liked the books, but I didn't love them.

    Then the BBC Pride and Prejudice, as well as infecting me with Colin Firth Fever, showed me the humour in the stories, and I went back and re-read, first P&P and then all the others, and this time, understanding the humour and social commentary, I LOVED them. (My favourite is Persuasion - such deep, understated passion!).

    So, for the questions:

    1. Yes, yes, and for the romance, wit, and characterization.

    2. I read historical romance, but not that many. It's easier for me to accept historical attitudes towards women in a novel written in that time period. Modern authors are in a bit of a trap - they can either 'modernize' their female characters and have them seem anachronistic, or they can be 'authentic' and have me rolling my eyes at how passive and dependent their characters are. Things I accept from Austin and contemporaries I have trouble with from modern authors. So I read some historicals (Courtney Milan is a favourite) but mostly hop around between different sub-genres.

  8. I´ve read all her work and I love Austen. My mother introduced her to me after I had started to learn English through Georgette Heyer, who wrote romance very much in the tradition of Austen.
    I love Austen because she is such an accurate reader of human behaviour, bad or good. Her heroines are humans, and not always perfect which makes her characters so much more interesting. To me she is not first a romance novelist but simply a very good novelist. Why else would we bother to read her still today? I do read her over and over again and still find new sides to her characters and work. I could go on forever analyzing her characters and still find new sides to them. They are simply complex as humans are.
    I read both historical and Contemporary and other romance genres as well.

  9. Austen is among my favorite authors. As such, I've read her six novels plus LADY SUSAN. (For anyone who cares, S&S is my favorite, with P&P second and Emma third, but Knightley is my favorite of the male leads.)

    I love the precision of her depictions of people, places, and social circumstances and her ability to skewer characters without coming across as unduly mean or exaggerating. No one is more deft at writing comedy of manners than she is. She also did interesting and novel things with POV and plot and pioneered the writing of novels with realistic characters and plots featuring flawed, various, even average people doing what was likely rather than extraordinary people doing what was possible but unlikely.

    Even though her books qualify as romance, I don't think any except P&P and Persuasion (and maybe Northanger Abbey) could be published as such today even in modernized form. Although Mansfield Park is probably my least favorite -- the moral quibbles about putting on a play fly over my head, and the plethora of unsympathetic characters make much of it a slog to read -- it is also probably the most revolutionary of her books.

    Not only does she implicitly criticize the operation of Uncle Bertram's West Indian sugar plantation, her main character is a morally scrupulous working-class teen with a social anxiety disorder whom Austen allows to reject the handsome alphahole Henry Crawford rather than reform him. Whatever one thinks of Fanny or of her winding up with her cousin Edmund, that rejection of romance convention is so audacious that I have a hard time believing any agent or Big 6 editor would accept a similar manuscript today.

    As for your second question, I read historical romance (m/f), contemporary erotic romance (m/f and mmf), contemporary, mystery, sci fi, paranormal, and historical (in that order) m/m, and a tiny slice of contemporary romance (m/f). I count romantic suspense in that tiny slice of contemporary romance, but it mostly consists of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt gothics and J.D. Robb IN DEATH books.

    Other than the tiny slice of contemporary m/f romance I read, these days my reading is pretty evenly divided between the categories, although that may change as I feel more of a need to get my fix of m/m romance or run out of Megan Hart erotic romances to read.

    I find that contemporary m/f, even erotic romance, uncritically accepts too many conventions for my taste. While I've read some historical m/f romances that make me want to bang my head against the wall (more often because of orientalism or other ethnic or racial stereotypes than feminist concerns, though), at least with historical romance I can accept that marriage was usually necessary to a woman's economic security and status and thus ensuring that a marriage was happy was important. Even with historical romance, I'm picky about what I'll try; Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, and Jeannie Lin are my sole autobuy authors.

  10. 1. I read and fell in love with Austen's Pride & Prejudice as a young reader. I loved her unconventional heroine, the family dynamics and the cast of quirky secondary characters, elements that always manage to sneak their way into the romances I've written. P&P was the book that inspired my desire to be a storyteller.

    2. I primarily read contemporary fiction. I only recently began reading a few historical titles. However, after falling hard for titles by Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins, I plan to read a lot more of the genre.

  11. 1.Yes, all of them (in Spanish) several times. I love her humor and I think she´s a master at characterization. She has the ability of describing a character with such accuracy you almost feel like you can visualize the person.
    2. Historical romance was the first thing I read as a teenager (well that and Stephen King!). I kind of got tired of the genre about 5 or 6 years ago and started exploring another fields. Nowadays, I mostly read contemporary romance and paranormal.

  12. I feel like the black sheep here.

    1. Yes, I've read five Jane Austen novels. No, I didn't enjoy them that much. The only one I found slightly interesting was "Persuasion". I found the stories bland and uninteresting.
    2. I read mostly romance, but I don't focus on any specific subgenre. I read basically everything.

    Usually I never reveal to others that I didn't enjoy Austen. I mean, among the romance fans it's the equivalent of going to church and telling everyone you don't believe in God. Hah!
    I understand the appeal of Austen for some readers, but it's not for me.

    Most people I know have never read Jane Austen. A few of them say they did, but later admit that they've only seen the movie adaptations. People are ashamed to say that they've either never read or never enjoyed Austen.

  13. 1. Yes, read all of them. Read them before I started my romance journey actually. I've also re-read Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion at least twice.

    Why do I enjoy them? Because Austen's novels combine elements that I love the best--a narrative that is grounded in the minutiae of life, characters who are well fleshed out and grow and evolve during the course of the story, historical British setting (one of my favorites), and a happy ending! In fact I reach for one of her novels when I'm in the mood for a comfort read.

    2. I read across other genres as well, apart from romance. In romance, my favorite is definitely historical. I also read some contemporary, and quite a bit of paranormal/urban and fantasy.

    Will be interesting if you can see a pattern somewhere!

  14. 1. Yes. The librarian at my high school suggested I read P&P, and then I read all of them (but never Lady Susan, though I intend to fix that soon). My reading of romance novels (contemporaries, mostly) predates my reading of Austen, but I developed a love for historical romance novels after I read Austen. Anyway, I reread at least one (usually 3 or 4) Austen novel every January and -- lately -- write about the experience on my blog.

    I enjoy Austen's caustic wit and her willingness to give a happy ending to characters who make mistakes (provided they make the right kind of mistakes, of course). I enjoy reading her books on many levels (they are fun and funny; they can be a comfort read for me; they are thought-provoking and interesting), and I keep coming back to them, year after year, because I always find some new thing that I've never noticed before.

    2. I still love historical romance novels, but lately I've been reading more contemporaries.

    Cheers, Kelly

  15. 1. Have you read any books by Jane Austen? If so, did you enjoy them? Why or why not?
    Yes, I have. All her production, I think.
    I did enjoy her. A lot. But mainly because of the satire of the society of her time and the foolishness of human weaknesses.

    2. Are you primarily a historical romance reader? Or do you prefer other romance genres?
    No, I'm not a primarily historical romance reader. I read a lot of that genre, of course, but I usually prefer suspense and contemporary. Now that I'm reading all the AAR Top 100 list, I tend to read more historical novels than usual. But I wouldn't consider myself as a historical romance reader.

    I'd like to add that I have never seen Jane Austen as a Romantic. Her style and her ideology has nothing to do with Byron or Radcliffe. I have always read her books as part of a realistic Literary tradition in which I would include Henry Fielding, E. Gaskell & W. M. Thackeray. She's too close to the soil she walks on- so to speak. Her little piece of society, in which neither dukes nor servants have a voice.
    I have always been surprised when I read that she's the mother of romance novels. From the Literary & Historical POV it's the kind of statement that does not make a lot of sense for me.

  16. 1. I've read the first few chapters and then a random middle section of Emma (the latter was for work), and I think I might have opened P&P at some point. But Austen's prose style turns me off too much to make it through. It's very sad; I've loved the various adaptations I've seen.

    2. Historical romance is my favourite, although I also read contemporary romance.

  17. I have definitely read Jane Austen. I tried to read 'Pride and Prejudice as a teen but was too young to get her. I revisited Jane as a literature major. I read 'Sense and Sensibility' and was awakened to the injustice Ms Austen portrayed for the women. The fact that a female who had been left an inheritance by her parents would legally lose it to her husband or that a brother could impoverish his sisters when their father died, was so very wrong to me in 1969 as I became involved in the women's movement. Then there was the fifteen-yea- old who was impregnated and abandoned, her life destroyed by the consummate ‘romantic’ character—who quickly devolves into a sociopath before the term was even coined.

    This time reading Austen left me with the opinion that she was the mother of the modern realistic psychological novel. She was as keen an observer of character and society as Balzac, and she beat his first novel by ten years.

    Forty years later, I wanted to try my hand at writing. Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) seemed the be a good fit. I plunged in without realizing my assessment of her was not that of the majority of the fandom. I wanted to write stories that integrated political issues, mainly those pertaining to the status of women, into a popular plot. That is what I thought she did. I figured if I posted my writings online people would tell me whether my attempt was working or not.

    The vast majority who participate have not read Jane, but have only seen the films. To them she was the mother of romance novels. I walked into this world and proceeded to rape Elizabeth Bennet ('Goodly Creatures') while still giving her a realistic happy ending with Darcy. l have many who can’t abide what I have written, but I also have a pretty strong fan base who have a more balanced approach to Austen.

    I recently read Annette Rubinstein’s ‘English Literature from Shakespeare to Shaw.’ As I read her analysis, I was struck by her admiration of the scene portraying Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins’ proposal. My favorite Austen character, Elizabeth Bennet, is resolute in her refusal despite his reminder that, in view of her small fortune: “It is by no means certain that another offer of marriage will ever be made.” This wonderful scene comes to a climax with a statement of one of the author’s favorite themes: “Do not consider me now as an elegant female… but as a rational creature.” This became my jumping off point for my gender/ bender P & P comedy (Mr Darcy Likes It Wild.) Wouldn’t the rational thing to do be run away dressed as a boy to avoid marriage to such a man?

    I adore Pride and Prejudice, not because of Mr. Darcy, but because of the woman he falls in love with. She was the character I most wanted to explore when I first began writing Austen inspired fiction. To my mind, both she and Ms Austen are complex individuals, profoundly aware and capable of choice.

    Ms Austen depicts Lizzy’s pride in her ability to observe, to analyze and to decide. Her prejudice comes through when she forgets that, even for her, there is only one area of selection—marriage. Throughout all her novels, the author’s witty prose roots this singular choice for women of her class in the numbing pressures of her acquisitive society. Irony is used to discover and illuminate; and though 'Pride and Prejudice’s' setting is the same stratified, materialistic and severely regulated culture, she imbues Elizabeth Bennet with a fierce longing to be a free individual. My kind of woman.

    I figured I should explore the romance novel genre. I started with historical romance. Very little of what is being written today is as good as Georgette Heyer. I have read almost everything she wrote and I am a huge fan. I found Courtney Milan on my own and she is great. I have also started to read moderns. Jackie turned me on to Cara McKenna. I find her characters intelligent, flawed but likable. I am currently writing a modern series that explores many issues facing women today.. Beth Massey

  18. Could it be that it depends on what the reader is used to?
    I mean if you only read romance novels, you only see the romance part in the stories. I detest this. Really. That's why I don't like to see her considered as the mother of the romance novels.
    If you read Literary fiction, as well, you see the style, the prose, the psychological insight.
    And if you are mainly worried about matters of genre or class, you look into her books from that POV.
    That's the good thing about classic authors, that they still say something new for each generation.

  19. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts. Probably some self-selection here in the commenting--if you don't like Jane Austen, you might not have been interested in enough to read the post, never mind respond to it...

    Glad I'm not the only one who likes both Austen and genre romance :-)

  20. Great post.

    I only tried Austen because so many romance writers cite it as an early form of the genre. I've enjoyed some film adaptations, but have only read P&P in it's entirety. I found that more humorous than romantic, especially when compared with how it's adapted to cinema. But I think I'm an outlier--Edith Wharton and Henry James influence me more often than not, even as a (formerly) heavy consumer of historical romance.

  21. 1. So far, I read two of her books, Northanger abbey & Persuasion, and I'm currently reading Mansfield Park. I absolutely enjoyed them and Persuasion is amongst the very 5 books I would save from a fire or take on a desert island. Her wirting is clever, witty, highly enjoyable and understandable when English is not your first language (I'm French and I must admit Jane Austen's english is more easy to catch for me than Charlotte Brontë's english, for instance). The characters are wonderful (I totally enjoy Sir Walter Elliot or Mrs Norris great "altruism") and... Captain Wentworth's letter. Captain. Wentworth's. Letter.

    2. It's not just that I enjoy reading historical romances (especially regency & victorian romances), it's that I enjoy reading historical whatever, period. Though, I enjoy reading contemporary romances from time to times, but they represent maybe 5% of the romances I read. As for other genres, I also like time-travel romances. Well, Regency or victorian time-travel romances, so I guess it's not entirely a different genre.

  22. I actually don't really love the romance genre, but I do love Jane Austen. So I'm kind of the reverse, for what it's worth. The romances I like do tend to be historical, sometimes paranormal... anything but contemporary romance.

  23. I have read a least two Jane Austen novels. Personally, I HATED them. I (mostly) love the romance genre though. Actually, it's more of a love/hate relationship because of the still many authors who insist on using patriarchal tropes (e.g. damsel in distress). From what I can recall, I didn't like that Austen's heroes were assholes and they never really changed throughout the book except to somehow fall in love. I didn't understand how a woman could love someone that treated her so badly just because he suddenly declared his love. Yuck. I'm not a big historical romance reader either, probably for similar reasons. Although I have found a few historicals that I loved with kick-ass female protagonists.

  24. I have read every novel by Jane Austen, some more than once. Pride and Prejudice, for example, I have read about four or five times. I have watched various television adaptations of the novels, including modern adaptations like Clueless and Lost in Austen. I love her novels and others from the period, but I wouldn't say I love historical romance. I do love modern romance genres, especially romantic suspense. I love strong female protagonists and a gripping story. I do think that some of Austen's female leads are strong, though not necessarily in the same way as modern heroines and I think this is the reason that some modern readers can't appreciate it. When they read Elizabeth Bennet's refusal of Mr Darcy's proposal, it's hard to remember that for a woman in her situation, a refusal of such an offer took some serious guts. She valued her pride more than money. In the present day, this is nothing. But then, she would have had two options: marry or become a governess. Her strength isn't as apparent but it is there, and she has become one of my favourite female protagonists.