Is Love Subversive?
In honour of International Women’s Day, I’ve taken a look at the Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts (or as my editor calls them, the GMCs), of Regency romance heroines. I was curious as to how these have evolved since, oh, 1813 (the year Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published).
There's no doubt that marriage and children were supposed to be the goals and motivations for the heroines of Austen’s world. So where’s the conflict? In love itself.
Austen has often been described as a ‘proto-feminist’, yet angling for marriage appears to motivate even her most independent characters. I wanted to consider the GMCs of her most iconic characters in light of this seeming juxtaposition. The idea that came to me is this: could Austen’s determination that her women not settle for loveless marriages, be a subversive idea for her time? Can love be that marginalised in procreative pairings?
In an era when women’s bodies were not thought capable of pleasure or desire, were their hearts seen any differently? That Lizzie Benett, Catherine Moreland, Fanny Price, Anne Wentworth, and the Dashwood sisters did not simply accept marriage as their only goal (ahem, Miss Lucas and the Misses Steele), speaks to the motivation for wanting more. It speaks to an awareness that women deserved more.
I’ve left out Emma Woodhouse above, because in this respect she is the most subversive of Austen’s heroines (excepting Lady Susan). Emma begins her journey fairly determined never to marry. Indeed she almost does not, despite the love of the hero. She even has the gall to sidestep the story’s ‘rake’ (though Churchill is a tame fellow compared with Wickham, Willoughby, and Thorpe). A Highbury revolutionary, whose partner gives up his abode to reside at Randall’s. Only love can explain this and Emma would not have wed Knightley without it.
Austen, at least in her novels, was determined to ensure her fictitious women received better than mere alliance. She championed partnership, companionship – a revolutionary rejection of contracted coupling in favour of deeper connection.
There is plenty of evidence that this was likely a subversive – or at least a new – idea in 1813. Goal: marriage, Motivation: security, Conflict: love is necessary for Austen’s protagonists to wed. They will not enter into matrimony without ‘the feels’. Their emotional health must matter (though Austen doubtless could not have expressed this so). Is love so difficult to come by in a Regency marriage, or is the idea of a union imbued with love for the woman as much as the man, considered subversive?
All of Austen’s heroines do work their way through their GMCs though. All find their way to the altar eventually, because in the 1800s, marriage was still the ‘G=goal’.
Roll forward to now, and one of my bestselling novellas (The Case of the Black Diamond), showcases a heroine who actively chooses a future as a man’s mistress – because she loves him and will not give up her business (which would become his if they wed in 1820). A Regency man written up in 2021, supports this of course – again, because, loving her as he does, he refuses to take anything away from her. In today’s historical romance, marriage forms a lesser goal to love. Respectability may likewise be sacrificed if one’s heart demands it loudly enough – a ‘M = motivation’ Austen would never have penned.
I often wonder what she would think of today’s women earning their own funds, loving for the sheer pleasure of it, and securing their own futures. It’s still a balancing act. While we have so much, love seems no easier. Prioritising our own desires over those of others, can be as challenging as ever. While women’s opportunities are vastly improved from two hundred years ago, choosing love over other considerations still feels subversive.
This International Women’s Day, I commit to becoming my own revolutionary, and loving myself. I deserve it.