|Watercolor of Austen|
Austen's landscape has always seemed to be far more treacherous and dangerous for a young woman than seems apt for a "romance novel" label. A young woman may fall very far, may plunge entirely out of her world. The stakes are far higher in Austen's books than any of our contemporary romances can attain, given the mainstream beliefs of our society.
Likewise, the meaning of the marriage plot in Austen is much grander than "romance novel" can convey. The pressing human question of how to live is, I find, often answered in Austen, and it is presented in the framework of the desire of men and women to become "one flesh." How strange that wish must often appear today, so unfashionable, so spiritual in nature! Yet clearly many, many people are still drawn by Austen.
With a sometimes-satiric pen, Austen offers a range of unions, from shattered or quietly failed to perfect, but a young woman (and her somewhat-less-young man) only makes it to perfect union by making mistakes and learning from them. On the way to her perfect marriage, Elizabeth Bennett turns down both an offer of pedantry and silliness and an offer of wealth and increased reputation; she learns about her own errors of discernment, and she changes, as does her future husband, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, each one schooled by the other and by the painful results of mistaken ideas.
In the course of events, both Lizzie and Darcy are forced to contemplate what it means for a life to hold truth and virtue, and by the time they do marry, the reader is quite sure that both have increased in understanding. They have each become more generous and more clear-eyed about what is true beauty and goodness. They come together without anger, without scorn for the one of less wealth and standing or the one who is less socially adept, without conceit, without impediments of conventional thought. Each sees the other clearly. They are at last ready for a marriage.
Austen's books possess heroines who are coming to wholeness and seizing the great transcendentals of truth and goodness within a certain societal framework--one that is relentless in its demands and sometimes cruel--the need of genteel (though lively) Christian gentlewomen to marry and so find a safe place in the world. The novels are alchemical vessels of transformation and coming to knowledge. Their heroines are learning how to live and contemplating the promise of becoming one with another human being, their struggles set in a world where most unions don't work, and most people don't know how to live.