Pride and Prejudice: The Gropeless Romantic
Despite having been printed over two centuries ago, still to this day Pride and Prejudice is celebrated as one of the most romantic stories ever, if not THE most romantic. Pride and Prejudice is so titillating scientists even named a pheromone after the male love interest in PaP, Mr. Darcy – a pheromone that immediately gets women in the mood, as long as those women happen to be mice.
The question on the table is, why? Why is Pride and Prejudice, a story in which no bodices are ripped whatsoever, widely considered the heart-fluttering-est tale of all? I mean, romance novels are almost always full up with various throbbing body parts, how is it that a novel in which no one even kisses is so beloved?
Before we get to that question I’m going to pause to tell you the story of how I learned to write sex scenes. When I was in what is now called middle school but was then called junior high, my friends and I all developed raging crushes on the guys from Duran Duran. After a complicated series of legal negotiations, I was issued a “John”, who was fortunately the Duran I liked the best anyway.
Isn’t he dreamy? I have to admit I would still be on him like eyeliner on a male early 80’s New Wave musician.
One of the ways we showed our adoration for Duran Duran was writing stories about them. We all started one, but over the course of time, everyone ended up preferring my story to their own or maybe they just got sick of writing them on top of doing their algebra homework. Since I rarely did my algebra homework, I didn’t have that problem and thus I ended up authoring a massive tome containing a cast of thousands, numerous romantic scenarios a surprising number of which contained chocolate-covered strawberries, and lots of sex which I now know was extremely PG-13 but at the time we thought was incredibly racy.
Now the irony of all this is, this is an essay about how many women such as myself generally prefer romances without an excess of graphic descriptions of sex in them, hence the title, but to get there, we have to get through my Duran Duran story which sadly is about to take a horrifying turn.
In the summer between 8th and 9th grade, my family and I journeyed to Indiana to visit my grandparents, which we did every summer, and I, being easily bored, took the latest installment of our Duran Duran story to work on while I was gone since my friends were clamoring for more. What I didn’t know at that time, was that my grandma was a terribly nosy c*nt, may she rest in peace. While I was away overnight visiting some other relatives, she went through my stuff and found the story (it was very well hidden, BTW; finding it took some thorough digging on her part) read it, and freaked the eff out on my poor mother.
But the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and my mother, who is a nice enough woman but don’t provoke her cause she’ll cut a b*tch, then proceeded to tell every person in southern Indiana what had happened and then she crossed the border into Kentucky and told some of them, too. So everyone I met for the remainder of my vacation – thousands of relatives and my mom’s old school chums and my uncles’ barhopping friends and total strangers we encountered at the gas station – either had already heard or was immediately told the tale of “When Frieda Discovered Kristin’s Dirty Story”. Imagine arriving at a barbecue and hearing someone ask your mother “Oh is that…” and her grinning cruelly and saying “Yes it is” as loud as she possibly could, and then dozens of adults, including the men, laughing over your burgeoning sexuality. Being a child I was so far out of touch with my righteous indignation gene that I truly thought I was the one who did wrong, so in addition to very nearly dying of shame, I was wracked with guilt over embarrassing my mother instead of being consumed with rage over her embarrassing me.
And some people wonder why I stay home on Thanksgiving.
But despite how humiliating the entire experience was, I can’t say I’d trade it, because I did learn a lot about writing from having written that story, and I learned even more about human nature from having it discovered. What I learned was that people are a-holes, even the ones you have to live with. Maybe them especially. They do cruel and selfish things for their own ugly reasons, things that leave your reputation in tatters like blabbing about your softcore porn experiment to the people of two states, or naively running off with shady military officers with gambling problems and chequered pasts (see Wickham, below).
That brings me back to Pride and Prejudice. The thing about Pride and Prejudice which makes it hard to understand why it’s so darn romantic is that it’s decidedly unsexy on the surface of it. PaP is primarily about families, how ridiculous and tedious and downright mortifying those a-holes who claim to love you even though their actions kinda makes you wonder, can be sometimes. And of course, in addition to being about families – the Bennet family in particular – Pride and Prejudice is also about the social intricacies of Regency-Era England, and inheritance laws, and clergymen, and unbelievably rude and nosy old women, of whom I can attest, they most definitely exist.
Yet despite the seemingly dry subject matter, it’s super hot. Pride and Prejudice sizzles inasmuch as something first published in 1813 is allowed to sizzle. Fifty Shades of Grey may have sold more copies, but I assure you that women will be reading Pride and Prejudice and biting their lip over Mr. Darcy in another 200-plus years and if there is a God, they’ll have forgotten all about EL James by then.
I hope you just said “who”?
The Bennet family, like most families, consists of several very nearly unendurable people and a couple of normal ones who spend much of their time looking back and forth like Jim and Pam on The Office as if to say “Can you even believe this sh–?” The family matriarch, Mrs. Bennet, is a flibbertigibbet who spends most of her time blurting out inappropriate observations and obsessing over finding husbands for her five daughters. While this is portrayed as a character flaw, the truth is, her obsession is entirely sensible because her husband, Mr. Bennet, having produced no male heirs, won’t inherit the family property, Longburne Estate. And because he’s indolent, which is an old-fashioned way to say he is lazy and self-indulgent, Mr. Bennet didn’t bother to save up any money to provide his daughters with dowries, either. Upon his death, he will leave his daughters destitute, so one of them must marry well to support the rest.
For his part, Mr. Bennet is often unkind, although his mean streak is hidden behind what is generously termed wit, and withdraws to his study at times when he really needs to take action. The chronically indolent and perpetually withdrawing Mr. Bennet really doesn’t seem to care awfully much that his wife and daughters will have nothing when he dies and frequently mocks his wife’s entirely legit concerns. The Bennet’s youngest daughters Lydia and Kitty are boy crazy, silly, and pathologically self-absorbed – a tendency that nearly destroys the family when Lydia runs off with the dreadful Wickham (the scoundrel described above) without benefit of marriage. Middle daughter, Mary, is dull, overly impressed with her own non-existent abilities, and is also a show off know-it-all.
The two Bennets we are meant to identify with are eldest Jane and protagonist Elizabeth, the second born. They’re nice normal girls in a family full of crazy.
And who can’t relate to that? Certainly not me.
Last year, I wrote about Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. In that essay I mentioned that many women prefer a fantasy where there’s this big complicated scenario and in the end true love conquers all, to people getting jiggy with it. For a lot of women, myself included, it’s how the players get to the happily-ever-after and not the gory details of their intimacy that matter. I believe that’s why romance novels are far more enjoyable than porn for many women. Porn cuts out all the stuff I’m interested in in favor of the stuff where I’d rather everything just faded to black and picked up again in an hour or two or maybe the next morning.
I want to know what happens when the woman who orders the pizza actually gets to eat the pizza.
Or as I put it in Familiar in a Strange Land:
And Pride and Prejudice is all that in a nutshell. You rarely find a scenario in all of fiction that is more convoluted than the plot of PaP. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet exist in a universe that is all environment, all exquisite complication, with none of the nitty gritty kissy kissy. And I love it.
Most people probably know the story of PaP by now, but it’s basically Elizabeth meeting and being misjudged by Mr. Darcy (in no small part due to the gauche and horrifying behavior of her family), then Elizabeth misjudging Mr. Darcy in return for misjudging her, not to mention the fact that nearly everyone he hangs out with is an irredeemable nasty snob, and after a lot of miscommunication and throat-clearing and incredible coincidences and comeuppances, everyone gets it all figured out and it’s happily ever after for both Jane and Elizabeth and several of the secondary characters as well, some of whom even kind of deserve it.
One of the more interesting things I’ve come to realize over the course of my romance novel project is how challenging it is for a lot of writers to surround their protagonists with families and friends. It makes sense from a practical perspective; after all, every new character is a character to juggle and flesh out and keep track of. Even Austen herself had a hard time finding stuff for Kitty and Mary Bennet to do. But at least she TRIES! At least her attempt to create a protagonist doesn’t entail yet another sad waif without a family, the likes of whom are endemic in the pages of romantic fiction.
Unless Urkel lied to me, I’m pretty sure family matters. And even more than it is about romance, Pride and Prejudice is about families. Historically speaking I am sure Jane Austen meant families literally, but as I read PaP through this time, it felt more like a parable. The behavior of various characters was so bizarrely applicable to my own life at times it was stunning. Who doesn’t know a prig, a snoot, a know-it-all, a bossy old woman, that person you just want to slap and tell them “do something about this financial predicament we’re in rather than cracking jokes at your wife’s expense?!?” Some of the events that occurred in the pages of Pride and Prejudice seemed fresher and more relatable to me than works of fiction written less than a decade ago. You say Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel inspire you because they beat up the boys? Well, Elizabeth Bennet brought a proud and prejudiced man to his knees with nothing more than a sharp tongue and a fine set of eyes.
The problems I faced growing up in 1983 may have been rather different than the problems Lizzy Bennet fictionally encountered in 1813 but the takeaway was the same – our families do things that publicly humiliate us, even emotionally stunt and scar us, and yet maybe it’s ok to believe in the possibility that potential love interests might see past all that to the person who somehow managed to survive their upbringing, who is actually kind of cool if you give them half a chance. The specifics may be different, but the lessons of PaP seem more applicable than ever – don’t let your own assumptions prejudice you against a person even if they appear to be entirely surrounded by low-class deplorable nitwits or prideful elitist snobs.
Family is very much one of those parts of the journey to falling in love that women love to read about. I personally believe most women like reading about women getting families far more than we do about women getting that other F word-ed. An ongoing theme in love stories is that of the girl without a family or with a dysfunctional family marrying into a readymade one full of supportive and wonderful people, one of whom you get to have hot sex with. It’s true in several of the books I’ve read over the past two years – Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Ashes in the Wind, to name a few – and it’s true of Pride and Prejudice too, only with a twist. Mr. Darcy doesn’t only provide Elizabeth Bennet a new extended family and home at Pemberley by marrying her; he actually goes one better and SAVES HER ACTUAL FAMILY FROM SOCIAL AND FINANCIAL RUIN. Amazingly, he does this before she even agrees to marry him. Without even letting her know he’s doing it, Darcy gives Elizabeth an incredible gift, and he does it even after Lizzy turned down his first marriage proposal. Despite not particularly liking or approving of Elizabeth’s family, without even hoping that there was anything in it for him, Mr. Darcy swoops in like a much more suitably-dressed Superman to save the day.
I think that’s the real reason why Pride and Prejudice is now and always will be on a very short list of the best romance novels ever. Mr. Darcy riding to the rescue of the Bennet family when nothing is in it for him is by far and away more romantic than a garish description of pulsating members and heaving bosoms. Men who help a woman for no reason is one of my favorite themes, not only in romance but across all genres. Why? Because it’s just nice to believe in a dude who doesn’t WANT anything from you for a flipping change. Like Mr. Darcy. Well, maybe he wants, but he doesn’t demand.
As sad as it sounds, at this point, the thing that makes me most want to sink into a hot bubble bath in ecstasy is knowing my husband is in the other room taking care of the children and washing the dishes and I don’t have to do a thing. Without resentment, without expectation, without ulterior motive.
Not saying it happens often, but when it does, it’s hot. Mr. Darcy hot.
Over the course of time as I’ve (hopefully) grown as a writer from my Duran Duran days to where I am today, I’ve learned something. The most important thing I learned, of course, is that trusting one’s grandmother is tantamount to getting involved in a land war in Asia. Don’t do it.
But the other thing I learned is that when it comes to sex scenes, there IS such a thing as too much. Sex is obviously of critical import to human beings, that’s why we obsess about it all the time. There is absolutely room for a deeper and more meaningful exploration of human sexuality via fiction. But overusing sex scenes is all too often a sign of an immature writer who doesn’t know understand what their readers actually find interesting or else lacks the skills to provide it, so they distract with the literary equivalent of a male stripper at Tupperware party.
Disposable sex scenes meant as filler don’t shed any new light on the human condition, they don’t advance the plot or flesh out your characters (er, so to speak), they’re not entertaining or uplifting or interesting. Most of the time, they’re not even sexy, just gross. A gratuitous application of sex scenes is (perhaps) excusable in a 13 year old girl writing for the amusement of her friends, but in a serious writer who hopes to be good? No! These things must be done delicately, delicately! Never at the expense of story and characterization. And never, ever at the expense of the things women actually want to read about, like family and clothes and comeuppances.
Sex scenes are like soy sauce. Soy sauce can be really good sometimes, in moderation, when the circumstances call for it. But nobody wants soy sauce in a creme brulee, and certainly no one ever wants to eat a whole bowlful of the stuff. In fact, there are by far more meals that are improved by not adding ANY soy sauce at all, than there are that need more of it. Don’t add soy sauce when you don’t need it, people! Don’t add too much or you’ll drown out all the other ingredients in your dish. Unless you super know what you’re doing, a heavy hand with the bottle of Kikkoman is going to end with people making disgusted faces.
Some of the best meals you’ll ever eat in your life don’t even have a drop of the salty stuff.
Just like Pride and Prejudice.