Humanity is awash in romantic narratives—from Anna Karenina to 50 Shades of Grey—that distort the nature of love, and feed our imaginations’ images of love as something overly emotional and sensual, from which it is difficult to break free. In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II writes that: “sensuality and emotionalism create states of feeling ‘within’ persons, and situations ‘between’ persons favorable to love. Nonetheless, these situations are not quite love.” (159)
So what are possible images of a romance that enables the two parties involved to develop and grow in virtue and draw each other into authentic personhood? Where is an image that can model a romance that is, although passionate and real, deeper than just momentary emotions and sensuality?
In 1813, Jane Austen did something revolutionary: she elevated the novel, which had been mostly populated with gothic fantasies, and elaborate, sex-driven plots, entirely disconnected from reality, to a work of fiction that incorporated questions of ethics and virtue, painted realistically in the daily lives of England’s upper-middle class—and the result was the novel Pride and Prejudice. There is a reason that Pride and Prejudice has maintained its popularity throughout the past three centuries, for it tells us something very true about the nature of romance and of love. Ms. Austen’s protagonist—Elizabeth Bennet—is a heroine who achieves happiness in love through applying the virtues she cultivates to her daily actions.
Happiness in love is possible for Elizabeth Bennet, because she chooses a spouse, who can facilitate her happiness, and she, his. Instead of seeking a “romance of the moment” she seeks a person whose character is such that they can both encourage each other to pursue virtue, to pursue goodness.
To the modern imagination, which has been trained to crave the situational and emotional elements of love, and prize them at the expense of the objective act of love, this state of virtuous harmony sounds, well, boring. In our cultural narrative of romance, we are plagued by the “romantic” sensibilities that affirm emotional egoism over reason. Instead of seeing romance as the ability of two humans to overcome their own ego to pursue a common good together, the common cultural narrative of romance does not transcend that level of simply emotional situation, stirred by mysterious forces outside of ourselves.
When Elizabeth learns, that Darcy is a flawed, but truly virtuous man, she realizes that she has misjudged someone who could potentially be an excellent partner:
“She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth Bennet comes to the realization that Darcy is an ideal spouse for her because he is indeed a partner who will help her grow in virtue. Elizabeth does not fall for Darcy because he turns her head, flatters her, or rings her bells. Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy because she finally realizes his true character, and (since she possesses valuable self-awareness and self-knowledge [a first ingredient for any successful romance]) she is able to reassess his potential as a husband. After examining her own conscience, Elizabeth begins to see that Darcy is truly an equal who could respect her, complement her, and live in happiness with her.
The great wisdom of Ms. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is that it offers valuable insight of romance that is radically counter-cultural. In Ms. Austen’s narrative your ideal partner is the woman or man who can help you grow in virtue, for the goal of our lives is to pursue the good. The beauty of love is learning to bow ourselves to a will outside of us.
And this is not a dry, passionless love, but a love that is fully alive, and sustained by more than just momentary chemistry.
It is a shame that Romeo and Juliet and their many hysteric, star-crossed offspring (Cathy and Heathcliff; Noah and Allie, Jack and Rose, to name a few) have deluded us into thinking that romance is something mindless and emotional—that it is all sparks and no fire—that falling in love and sustaining love is entirely comprised of chance, fate, and a little pixie dust for good luck. While, of course, falling in love is something entirely out of our control, our response to the situation of love is entirely in our control.
Happiness in love is possible for Elizabeth Bennet, because she chooses a spouse, who can facilitate her growth in goodness, and she, his.
This is a true love story: a story of two very flawed humans learning to forsake their own wills, to facilitate the good of the other, because they first and foremost love goodness. Their love story is reasonable, and yet transcends reason. It is made up of the deepest stuff of human existence: something deeper than feeling and thought; emotions and logic puzzles—it is made up of the will. Elizabeth lets virtue guide the choices she makes; and the result is not a happy ending, but a joyful beginning.