This article is part of Austen in August, a celebration of all things Austen.
Many believe that Jane Austen wrote romantic novels. Janeites, of course, know that Austen’s works are much more than that. Austen is a romantic, yes, but she’s also a social chronicler with a sharp eye for detail, a witty observer of human nature and a mistress of satire.
What’s more, her understanding of romance goes beyond the girl-meets-boy narrative. Granted, all of her stories have a happy ending with the marriage of the heroine, but at the same time they invariably include the presence of love gone wrong, as if to remind the reader of just how lucky the loved up protagonist couple is.
In Austen’s novels, love goes wrong in many different ways. For example, there’s the case of marriages driven by financial interest; they seldom work, and often produce miserable couples, as Willoughby, who has married a wealthy heiress with 50,000 pounds, admits when speaking to Elinor towards the end of Sense and Sensibility:
“‘Do not talk to me of my wife,’ said he, with a heavy sigh. ‘She does not deserve your compassion. She knew I had no regard for her when we married.’” (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 44)
Poor marriage choices can also be due to the blinding effect of being in love – and to sheer lust, of course. Mr and Mrs Bennet are a perfect example of a marriage between opposites initially driven by a strong physical attraction but doomed to infelicity, as Elizabeth admits to herself:
“Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 42)
However, there are many more such pairings in Austen’s novels, consummated or closely averted. Take Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park: he is infatuated by Mary Crawford, who is beautiful and very charming, but utterly wrong for him. Or Mr Palmer and Mrs Palmer of Sense and Sensibility, whose completely different dispositions make for a rather uncomfortable marriage – to witness, at least.
Austen doesn’t shy away from lost love, either. Her novels depict with painful accuracy the ache suffered by a broken heart, and none does it better than Persuasion. In it Anne Elliot has loved and lost, and her despair is so present, her lack of belief in her own merits so evident, that when her former beau, Captain Wentworth, assists her into a carriage, she is overwhelmed with silent gratitude:
“He could not forgive her; but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief.” (Persuasion, Chapter 10)
Lost love can give us painful memories, but its power doesn’t stop in the past. Broken hearts destroy the present existence of many characters, as miserable Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility can attest. Her unhappiness is such that she stops caring, and almost kills herself in the process, due to an illness entirely brought on by herself (“Had I died, it would have been self-destruction,” she admits in Chapter 46).
Marianne, bless her, is quite the drama queen, but even more restrained characters like her sister Elinor or even Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice show in the misery of their everydays the power that past affections that are believed not to be returned at present have on the sufferer.
Of course, there’s another Austen character that surely nurses a most wretchedly broken heart: Georgiana Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. Seduced at fifteen by the rogue Wickham, who is only interested in her because of her settlement, she has the good sense to alert her brother about their impending elopement, but the price she has to pay is undoubtedly the most painful of heartaches. We do not know much at all about her feelings, but one can imagine the shame of her mistakes, the impossibility of her love for Wickham and the jealousy at seeing the man she loves marry her sister’s sister.
I have always been intrigued by Georgiana and her heartache, and that’s why I made her the protagonist of Miss Darcy’s Beaux. In the novel, Georgiana, sheltered in Pemberley since her romantic disillusionment, goes to London in search of a suitable husband, chaperoned by Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her little secret is that she is still very much in love with Wickham.
In Miss Darcy’s Beaux, lost love clouds Georgiana’s present and her future, just as it has hovered, dark and ominous, over the lives of other Austen characters. But for her, there is a silver lining at the end.
This article was originally published in The Book Rat, as pat of Austen in August.