“There is a scene in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where the hopelessly romantic Marianne Dashwood writes a letter to a man she isn’t related to, so everyone assumes they must be engaged,” the British historian and journalist Kate Lister wrote last year in the UK newspaper i. “There isn’t much I envy about the dating traditions of the past, but I do love the simplicity of that. . . . No difficult conversations about where this is going, or who wants what. Just boom! You wrote me a letter so now we’re engaged.”
The enviable straightforwardness of Austen’s day contrasts with the irritating amorphousness of our own, Lister writes, as exemplified by the so-called “situationship”—a sexual/romantic involvement that lacks clear definition or boundaries. “Somewhere between being single and being in a relationship, a vast ocean of grey has emerged,” she notes. “Today, you can be having regular sex with someone, going on dates, meeting their friends, and stealing their hoodies–and still not call this person your partner.”
As a boring long-married person, I have no firsthand experience of the circa-2024 situationship, which, judging from Lister’s description, sounds like a recipe for frustration, exploitation, and/or heartbreak. I do, however, have to take issue with Lister’s Austenian analysis.* Because what is Marianne’s amorphous, undefined, close-but-how-close-exactly relationship with Willoughby but a circa-1811 situationship?
And it’s not like Marianne is the only character in Austen who struggles with an undefined romantic entanglement. Think of Lydia Bennet assuming she’s bound for the altar but ending up living in sin. Or Isabella Thorpe jilting one fiancé only to learn that she hasn’t actually nailed down another. Or Captain Wentworth discovering that his friends assume he’s about to marry Louisa Musgrove.
The rules of propriety governing the world of Austen’s novels may dictate that unengaged men and women cannot correspond, but in her stories, the existence of those rules doesn’t preclude frustration, exploitation, and heartbreak. It’s still possible for women to get emotionally involved with men who avoid declarations of commitment, or for men to raise expectations they don’t plan to fulfill. And all of this with no hoodie-stealing!
It’s tempting to turn Jane Austen into a convenient foil for the foggy lack of definition that seems to define modern dating life--a beacon of relationship clarity in a modern world where such matters seem hazy and confusing. But the truth is that romantic relationships have always been hazy and confusing. That’s one of the reasons we’re still reading Austen’s novels.
* Although I suspect that Lister, who holds a doctorate in nineteenth-century English literature, may have oversimplified her analysis in the name of clever journalism.