I really believe that love is unchanging and those who try to set an era for the birth of the modern emotional experience of love are perhaps over simplifying (yes, people write articles about this). The ways of expressing love certainly change with fashion. But how deep is this change? My mother went on an Austen stint during her pregnancies, but I’m afraid I watched the entire series of Supernatural instead. Gen X, hey? However, after a series of late nights up with my baby I’ve finally turned to Austen and the Brontes. Starting to read Pride and Prejudice again put me in mind of the changing views of love and made me wonder – are these changes just veils on the surface?
To modern tastes, Austen can be quite the tease. She spends the entire novel following the trials of Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship, yet when it comes to the final expression of that love she swiftly and demurely pulls back:
‘[Darcy] expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.’
‘Nuff said, apparently. Fill in the gaps, people. Bronte’s ‘And so, dear reader, I married him’ is another famous moment of literature where we either come over a bit teary or (most likely) wish that we’d been privy to a little more between the lines. Because it’s not likely we’ll take a moment to sit back and fill in those gaps then and there – Austen’s story moves on, no time for romantically dawdling in undisclosed scenes. It’s all back to business.
I’m pretty sure these characters would have felt the same as us anyway. After all, we all release the same hormones when we’re in love (and many that we share with mammals in general). We haven’t materially evolved since those days of yore. It’s really just the cultural context that’s changed. The trappings, if you like.
The Romans pretty much had love perfectly described. Omnia vincit amor, said Vergil. Love conquers all. Not just all obstacles in its way. That would be pretty romantic. No, omnia here means everything – sanity, good judgment, moral order and even self-respect. The Romans knew love was scary. We know that too.
I squished a little spider that had fallen into my baby’s crib the other day. ‘My first murder for Will’, I joked to my husband. Yes, it was a joke, but anyone who’s had a child suddenly senses how vast and dangerous love can be. Maybe that’s why Austen and company so quickly turn away from it – because what does passionate love do to an otherwise orderly society? Causes trouble, that’s what.