From Jane Austen to E.L Jamess, one thing is absolutely clear: People just cannot get enough romance in literature. Emily Wigham charts the romance genre from its roots to present day, while also exploring the question of female autonomy in the romance novel.
There has been a lot of back and forth concerning the nature of romance novels over the past few centuries. From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to more contemporary and altogether raunchier examples, like Fifty Shades of Grey, questions relating to bodily and social autonomy among our leading ladies prevail.
To begin with, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, presented Elizabeth Bennet to the world as a woman to be reckoned with. Throughout Austen’s novel, the financial situation of the Bennet family is made very clear: they were less than comfortable, and the idea of Mr Darcy, one of the richest men in town, having interest in a Bennet sister was of great excitement (albeit to everyone except Elizabeth herself). Miss Bennet shows a great deal of strength throughout the novel; she turns down multiple offers for marriage, including the one from her cousin Mr Collins that would guarantee future financial security by ensuring the land stayed in the family’s hands. However, Elizabeth thinks more highly of herself than to marry for money, and so waits until Darcy has proven himself worthy before she takes the plunge. While this seems to show a great deal of autonomy on behalf of Elizabeth, many contemporary figures argue about Darcy’s role in her decision, saying that he manipulated her out of her relationship with suitor George Wickham and influenced her decision in choosing him; in fact, this is an opinion I must say I had as a young reader.
Fast forward to a novel in more recent memory, and one that I am slightly embarrassed to have read, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. While the majority of today’s criticism toward the series is based on the lacklustre movie saga, which even the actors regretted participating in, there has also been quite a bit of conversation around the nature of Bella and Edward’s relationship. As Edward was a literal blood sucking monster, questions have arisen concerning the consensual aspect of their relationship. How much of it was fear, or manipulation? How effective was Bella’s agency when it came up against the supernatural nature of her boyfriend? Bella was continuously in danger throughout her relationship with the young vampire Edward, and even turned down the objectively better choice, Jacob. (can you tell which team I was on?). All these elements beg the question, was she truly in her right mind?
As Edward was a literal blood sucking monster, questions have arisen concerning the consensual aspect of their relationship. How much of it was fear, or manipulation?
A similar cluster of concerns came about following 2011’s notorious Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The introduction of BDSM culture into the public sphere, something which had previously been shunned to the shadows, led to a flurry of confusion amidst the public. Anxieties surrounding how consent works in sub-dom relationships, as well as the concept of safe words and sex contracts lead to fears that protagonist Anastasia was unconsciously wrapped up in a world that she could not fully understand, or consent to be a part of.
However, all this being said, I can’t say that I fully agree with such arguments against the autonomy of female characters in the romance novel. I think we are taking away from the main point of these novels when we dismiss the role of the protagonists’ agency throughout their respective relationships. Elizabeth Bennet actively turns down a multitude of financially fortuitus marriages before falling in love with suitor Mr Darcy. Similarly, Bella’s strength of character throughout the Twilight series only seems to improve throughout her relationship with Edward. Lastly, Anastasia appears to have helped Mr Grey overcome his childhood trauma and created a safe space for both parties to partake in a consensual, albeit slightly taboo, sex life. A more relevant example today which drives my point home is the recently readapted Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Similar to Austen, Louisa May Alcott imagines Jo as a strong, independent woman who turns down marriage to lifelong friend and well-off suitor Laurie in favour of her writing career. Again, and again in these novels, women choose their own happiness before the ideals and concerns of society at large, and I think by debating their autonomy we feed into the “damsel in distress” archetype, which only serves to perpetuate damaging ideas about women.
I think we are taking away from the main point of these novels when we dismiss the role of the protagonists’ agency throughout their respective relationships.