High stakes, low stakes
In Jane Austen’s novels, the stakes of the courtship game could hardly be higher: Her heroines face irrevocable decisions that will determine not just their personal romantic and sexual fulfillment but also their future financial security, class status, family relations, and moral outlook.
But the terms in which Austen couches these high-stakes dramas are typically understated. No one spells out the fact that marriage is forever and that husbands hold virtually all the social and economic power. Even when her heroines face heartbreak, they do so with restraint. Elizabeth Bennet, convinced her chances with Darcy are gone, “saw him go with regret”; Elinor Dashwood, learning of Edward’s engagement to Lucy, is “almost overcome” but soon masters her feelings. When Anne Elliot, about to read Captain Wentworth’s declaration, thinks that “on the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her,” it’s a rare expression of overwrought emotion — and it occurs entirely inside her own head.
How far away Jane Austen’s world seemed last week, as I watched the twenty-six-year-old software engineer from Seattle accept an engagement ring from the thirty-one-year-old real estate agent from New York on the finale of The Courtship, NBC’s Regency-themed reality dating show.
It wasn’t just the plunging-to-the-navel necklines on so many of the gowns worn by our heroine, Nicole Rémy, or her suitors’ penchant for stripping off their shirts in public. It wasn’t even Rémy’s willingness to welcome one of the guys into her bedroom for a sleepover — twice. (Holy Lydia Bennet, Batman!)
No, what I found most un-Austenesque about the show was its weird combination of over-the-top rhetoric and exceedingly low stakes – the mirror image of Austen. Even as Rémy was announcing, “I’m making the most important decision of my life,” it was impossible to forget that, whatever her decision, she could change her mind faster than you could say “Harris Bigg-Wither,” and then go right back to engineering software in Seattle, with zero social or financial repercussions. Heck, she could even text one of the rejected guys for a do-over! Nothing irrevocable here!
The Courtship was originally titled Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance, and across the show’s interminable twelve episodes, Jane Austen was namechecked frequently, generally as a convenient shorthand for “swoony heterosexual romance, now with cravats and good manners.” From time to time, Austen’s characters even came to mind, usually when one of the suitors behaved with particular caddishness. (By the time Rémy banished the gorgeous but callow Lincoln Chapman -- he of the aforementioned two sleepovers – his resemblance to John Willoughby had become impossible to ignore.)
Meanwhile, whenever the man she eventually chose -- Daniel “Danny B” Bochicchio, a brash Staten Islander with a Noo Yawk accent -- had the temerity to suggest that he might not feel ready to propose after a two months’ acquaintance conducted on the set of a TV show, in costume, surrounded by strangers, and under near-constant camera surveillance, his reservations were treated not as welcome signs of mental health but as deeply suspicious indicators of commitment-phobia, or of that worst of reality-TV sins: Not Being Here For The Right Reasons.
When the last episode wrapped up with Bochicchio down on one knee, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that he’d been stampeded into the gesture by narrative momentum. Indeed, by the next day, #TheCourtship Twitter was speculating that the engagement might not have survived the months-long gap between the shoot and the broadcast. (Why was his Instagram account now private? Why was she posting no pictures of the happy couple?) But even the saddest of breakups won’t wreak havoc on Rémy’s reputation, let alone her family’s future prospects, in the manner of a scandalous separation in an Austen novel.
Let me be clear: That’s a good thing! The high stakes of Jane Austen’s marriage market reflect the precarity of women’s social position in her era. Today’s heroines have more eggs and more baskets -- more varied opportunities to steer their own lives.
Presumably, the tiny band of people who actually care – The Courtship’s ratings were so low that it was unceremoniously exiled from primetime to cable after just two episodes – will eventually find out whether Danny B. turned out to be Nicole’s prince or just another frog.* Luckily, it doesn’t matter all that much.
* Frog. Danny dumped Nicole a matter of weeks after their on-camera engagement, she revealed in an interview published shortly after the finale aired.