Austen, romance novelist

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Engraving, J. Austen, c. 1873, Johnson Wilson & Co., Publishers, Library of Congress

Romance novelist, Jane Austen
Image: J. Austen, c. 1873, Johnson Wilson & Co., Publishers, Library of Congress.

When I suggest that to hard-core “Janeites”—lovers of Jane Austen’s books—that Jane Austen is a romance novelist, the instinctive reaction I get is a cringe, followed by a grudging admission that they suppose I’m probably right. This is usually immediately followed by an insistence that Austen’s works are so much deeper, so much more layered, so much better, so much more lasting than modern mass market romances. Those who know a little more quickly point out that Austen wasn’t actually a best-seller in her own time, the implication being that if she didn’t have mass market appeal when she published, then she can’t be compared to popular mass market romance novelists of today.

On the other side of the fence, however, “it is a truth universally acknowledged” among romance readers that Jane Austen is a romance writer. How could she be anything else? Non-romance critics might label her genre the domestic novel or the courtship novel or might just label her “the best” and leave out genre classification, but she wrote romances.

Jane Austen might be the female author least in need of reclaiming today. She was canonized in about 1870, and has since been sometimes the only female in the literary canon and certainly the first female (besides perhaps George Eliot) to receive the treatment of whatever new literary criticism is currently hot. The feminists got hold of her in the 1980s and we’ve never let go.

But perhaps we need to reclaim her for romance criticism. Jane Austen wrote mass market romances, which does not imply that she wrote simple books, but rather implies that modern popular mass market romance novels are as layered and textured as Austen’s six novels and as deserving of consideration.

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Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D. is an associate professor of literature at Fayetteville State University and the president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.

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