Continuing with our study of the romances in Austen’s works, it seemed fitting to discuss the idea of true love so close to Valentine’s Day. Among Fan Fiction readers of all genres, there is the idea of a “one true pairing,” meaning an unbreakable romantic coupling that may or may not exist in the story proper.
Regarding the Austen fandom, there are some couples that nearly everyone agrees must always unite: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot are at the top of the list. I could add Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, but that’s more because there is a lack of viable alternatives presented in the story than out of overwhelming fan-love. Emma and Mr. Knightley are in a similar position. Fans would not have Emma with Mr. Elton or Frank Churchill. However, many do like Knightley but not Emma and would be content to see them both single forever. On the other hand, there is a philosophy of redeeming characters and giving them a second chance. This seems most notable in rakes like Henry Crawford and Willoughby.
I’ll be honest, it’s always seemed strange to me to disagree with the creator of the work and on a long-finished project. However, I do want to examine the nature of these relationships and why so many feel some pairings are inflexible and others in need of correction. I will review them by categories of obstacles, longevity, and relatability.
Without a doubt, the venerated favorite Austen work is Pride and Prejudice. Her main couple, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet have quite a share of obstacles to overcome. The title alone indicates the conflicts afoot, but there are also scheming rogues and wayward relatives. Originally published in three volumes, we see a moment of crisis in each volume. The first one ends with the departure of Darcy and Bingley from Netherfield. The reader has seen Darcy’s admiration grow, but Elizabeth remains ignorant of it. Instead, she believes Wickham, and Darcy seems unworthy of her love. Whether she ends up with Wickham or not, no one sheds a tear about what might have been with the pompous Darcy. In the second volume, of course, we have Darcy’s disastrous first proposal. The third volume begins with Lydia’s elopement. Things seem darkest when Lady Catherine comes in all her haughty glory to berate Elizabeth for reportedly daring to think about accepting Darcy. Even after a proposal is accepted, there is the matter of convincing Elizabeth’s father and bearing with the displeasure of Darcy’s aunt. In the fan fiction world, we root for them over and over again. At the same time, they are put in obstacles of every kind, even including marriage to other partners and occasionally death!
Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot are another couple who have overcome extreme odds. First, their engagement was broken. One can imagine the heartache attached to that was infinitely worse than merely separated by time and distance before their relationship bloomed. Secondly, it lasted many years and allowed feelings to harden. Lastly, both had rumored attachments to others. Comparatively, the only obstacle Marianne and Brandon have is her interest in another man. Willoughby is the one that must overcome greed, vanity, being a rake, and by the end of the book, marriage to another woman. Instead of feeling relieved that Marianne finds happiness with the steadfast Brandon, many readers are left rooting for a last-minute change of scenario for Willoughby. Likewise, Fanny had loved Edmund most of her life, and she was his best friend and confidant. Their falling in love is nearly too natural. Whereas marriage between Fanny and Henry or Edmund and Mary would require much more surmounting of obstacles.
As Elizabeth Bennet informs her father, her attachment to Darcy is not the work of a moment but had withstood several months’ suspense. Many women have sighed over Darcy’s ardent love for Elizabeth, which spans nearly the entire length of the novel. Wentworth’s letter detailing how he loved no one but Anne surely sends most female hearts pitter-pattering. While Elinor and Edward were attached for much of Sense and Sensibility and had a fair share of obstacles to overcome, one wonders at Edward’s steadfastness when he had been engaged to Lucy and seemingly so willing to follow through on it. Certainly, a case of cultural misunderstanding is to blame, as the modern reader cannot fully understand the importance of honor to a Georgian man. Readers lay a similar complaint at Edmund and Marianne’s doors. Put succinctly, we are wary of second attachments but not second chances.
Lastly, there is an issue of relatability. Darcy and Elizabeth’s tale of star-crossed lovers destined to misunderstand one another at every turn is as familiar to readers as Romeo and Juliet. If we haven’t lived it ourselves, we have read it and watched it before as it is a common romance trope. The allure of a second chance with the “one who got away” is obviously also a familiar theme; just ask lovers of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. However, the relationships between Brandon and Marianne, Edward and Elinor, and Fanny and Edmund require us to look too closely at ourselves. In each case, youth and foolishness play a part, as do vanity and insecurity. Marianne sought a man who was her mirror image to validate her own feelings on every subject. Indeed, that’s very relatable but not necessarily likable. Edward attached himself due to nothing more than idleness. He was in love with the idea of love. Again, something many have found themselves living but not something we enjoy living through vicariously. And how many of us have had a romantic interest in a close friend who just doesn’t see us that way? And how many of us are still holding a grudge even years later and mark it as nearly unforgivable to not see the good woman right in front of you?
Perhaps, then, reader notions of one true pairings have far more to do with their own prejudices and experiences than it does with the text and author intent. For my part, I believe Jane Austen enjoyed stirring the pot and rocking the boat. Why should only one or two types of relationships be the epitome of romantic love? Why not embrace the complexity that each one is unique?
My relationship with my husband is us frequently watching something we only half pay attention to and texting each other silly memes we find online. I am typically also working while he is watching a brainless podcast of video games. We do enjoy eating out but merely for the food, not for the atmosphere. Valentine’s Day, to me, does not require roses and chocolates. However, others feel most loved when the relationship is surrounded by romantic love or sizzling lust.
Just as each woman is different, so too is each Austen heroine. Would a woman like Fanny have enjoyed a romantic relationship like Anne Elliot? I think Fanny would have rather been practically invisible to Edmund than a love he did not act on for almost a decade out of stubborn pride. I think she would find the latter harder to forgive. Obviously, that’s not the case for Anne, but would she like Marianne’s relationship? She felt it hard to trust her judgment on not only Wentworth but on her cousin, Mr. Elliot. Imagine if she had been burned romantically once! She would likely never try again! On the other hand, while so many of us are willing to give Darcy a second chance to woo Elizabeth, Marianne would not have appreciated Willoughby doing the same. In short, “there are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.”