#26: Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot

On empire waists and bodice rippers

Like so many of us, my brain is swiss cheese these days, with the stress of living in hellworld tunneling the holes instead of delightful and helpful bacteria. As a result, I watched all 6 hours of the Pride and Prejudice 1995 BBC miniseries while annotating endless ICE detention center inspection reports, and I listen to a 500 year old British lady read me Persuasion as I’m cooking dinner most evenings. When I read books, a lot of them are romance novels following similar beats—Talia Hibbert, Courtney Milan, Cat Sebastian, Tessa Dare—but with a lot more smut.

I like them because they’re familiar, predictable and sweet even through the hijinks— (the imaginary Scotsman our shy heroine has been writing letters to for years in order to keep her family off her back about marriage is not only real but knocking at her door. Will they find love? Yes, duh.) (A real life African prince shows up in a PhD students’ inbox, claiming she’s his royal betrothed. Will they find love? Yes, duh.)—something that feels rare and brilliant and incredibly soothing in these unknown times.

I was not an English major, don’t know enough about fiction to talk about The Marriage Plot as like, a social or emotional or whatever device, but I am someone about to be married, in a pretty socially conventional way, and as a result maybe have something—not particularly interesting or new—to say about how my own life and marriage non-plot fits into the Big White Cultural Narrative.

Austen’s books famously end at marriage. Or not even at marriage, but at accepted proposal, the pinnacle of romantic experience because a man has to ask a woman, with his whole chest, to spend the rest of his life with her, because in some way—either because the state of marriage is pleasing to his patroness Lady Catherine DeBourgh, or because he’s half-agony, half-hope, as in love with her at 27 as at 19. After the proposal, we get a gentle sketch of life thereafter: usually pleasant and lovely but nondescript. A lot of the more contemporary novels are similar—we end with the proposal, or with long-married people saying “I love you” or renewing promises after years of lovelessness, or with a wedding previously cancelled: some big declaration, some big speech, a man finally saying, with all his words, that a woman matters. Matters in general, sure, but also matters to him.

Often the engine of the plot comes from a previous inability to do just that—Anne Eliot is unable to say, decisively, that she picks Frederick Wentworth and so she loses him for eight years, Mr. Knightley remains kind of a dick (even at the end of the book!) for only criticizing Emma instead of saying he loves her, Mr. Darcy is only accepted when he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that what matters to him is Elizabeth alongside her unfortunate relations rather than despite them. This works best when it’s both partners being intractable rather than just one of them, but we always end in the same place: a big declaration of love, words previously withheld coming down like confetti.

And this both is and isn’t how it goes in real life, isn’t it? It’s the same cycle, of rubbing along together, very often just two people living in the same space, negotiating grocery and laundry and like, keeping each other and the dog alive, and it’s all fine and regular. And then there’s some little thing—making dinner or doing the dishes, a little touch as they brush by, a split Reese’s after a trip to the drug store for more toilet paper, whatever—that works as this reminder. There’s no big declaration because you’re not saving it for a special occasion, just this one of being on opposite ends of the same couch, or having woken up in the morning. There’s the occasional nights where you forget to turn on the TV and talk instead and it feels like a third date in the best way possible, the text you send in the middle of a crappy work day knowing it’ll have somewhere to land. You also have the big moments: a proposal, a couple interstate moves for each other’s goals, writing vows and reading them, eventually. None of this is particularly enthralling fiction, though, and so we have Austen, and the hundreds of others who have followed in her footsteps, writing stories about love or sex that are actually stories about being seen and understood, about being valued and accepted and loved that all come shining through in one big moment when misunderstanding is cleared away and Love carries the day.

Anyways, I’m due for one of these big white verbal affirmations in just a few weeks, although it’ll be happening in a courthouse, fully masked, following a simple script set ahead of time by some judge. This isn’t how I pictured it happening (nothing about this year is, hence: romance novels), but there’s a reason that the marriage vow is usually used as an example of effective speech: the act of saying it makes something real in the world that wasn’t there before. So we’ll go into the courthouse, and by the time we come out, regardless of how weird and COVID-y it is, by the time we come out, we will be married, and have told each other, with our whole chests, what we mean to one another, and maybe there will be confetti.

Reading List:

As a reminder, anything you buy from here not only doesn’t go to Amazon, but I do get a cut of the proceeds! I’ve thrown in some Austen, and some of the romances mentioned above, plus a few bonuses if you click through to the list itself, but also, if you want a private recommendation, we can make that happen. You can also find previous newsletter’s reading lists here.

  1. Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.

  2. When a Scot Ties the Knot, Tessa Dare.

  3. A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole.

No new writing out in the world this month from me, busy drafting, but as always, if you loved this newsletter, share it with a friend, tweet about it, or whatever! I also love getting notes from folks, which you can do by replying to emails!

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