Jane Austen in the age of the hookup
Lucy Worsley is a member of the uniquely British species known as the TV Historian – not a historian who writes about television, but rather a historian who derives her fame from hosting television shows on historical topics. The Brits, possessors of a long and glorious history, love these kinds of shows. Apparently they even enjoyed Worsley’s recent program on “the art of horse dancing.” (Don’t ask me. I don’t know either.)
Promoting her new BBC series on the history of romantic fiction, which begins on UK TV tonight, Worsley opined recently that, in our hookup-crazy culture, romance may be dead.
“How could Jane Austen have written her novels about the slow, exquisite torture of love in an age of Grindr and Tinder, when bored singletons search for one-night stands with a few clicks of their mobiles?” she told Radio Times (in an interview that is apparently not on line but is quoted here.) “Austen’s heroines worked hard to find The One by overcoming obstacles of social class, parental disapproval and the law. But these days it’s far too easy for romance to flourish.”
(An aside: Is “romance” really what Tinder promotes? And who are these Austen heroines who faced legal obstacles to their matrimonial pursuits? Beats me.)
Let us acknowledge that Worsley is correct in noting that contemporary romance-writers must throw up different roadblocks to love -- instead of parental disapproval or unequal social class, perhaps psychological hang-ups and work-family conflicts. And yes, making this seem plausible requires some artistry: as a semi-devoted romance reader, I have sometimes found myself sighing with exasperation at the gyrations required to separate two protagonists who have already had The Best Sex Ever by chapter 5.
But let us proceed to the heart of the matter: does the existence of hookup culture make Austen’s stories mere quaint curiosities with no relevance to our own time?
Well, you know how I’m going to answer that question.
As a long-married, middle-aged person, I’m unqualified to judge the validity of Worsley’s reflections on contemporary culture. (Yes, honey, I do know what Tinder is. But only because I’ve read about it. Really!) As a longtime Austen reader, however, I reject the suggestion that her world is entirely filled with virtuous, restrained folk who know nothing about the instant gratification of sexual desire.
It’s true that some, though not all, of Austen’s heroines (and heroes, for that matter) experience slow, exquisite love-torture. But all around them people like Lydia Bennet and George Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford, Penelope Clay and William Elliot, John Willoughby and Eliza Williams, are jumping into bed with an alacrity that suggests imprudent, lust-driven sex may have been invented a few years before the smartphone.
Indeed, it’s the very availability of such Regency hookups that makes the protagonist’s decision to behave differently into a real ethical choice, rather than a morally neutral default setting.
It’s true that Austen’s social context ensured that imprudent sex could never be as consequence-free, at least for the women involved, as it can be now. But its siren song was surely just as alluring. Jane Austen never saw a mobile app, but she still has plenty to teach us about romance in an age of casual sex.