Jo Boon explores the recurring theme of multiple proposals in classic novels, from Austen to Gaskell and many others in between. How can you be a heroine when you're not recieving a proposal every other chapter? This trope exists for a reason but these novels contain plots, not lives- they are not a 'to do', list and most of the heroines would exchange their marriages for your opportunities.
Unrealistic expectations when it comes to romance are extremely common. Who can blame us? We’re bombarded with Disney and Austen, with everything in between telling us that Mr/Ms/X Right is just around the corner. What has struck me in my early adult years, however, is not just the unrealistic expectation of a perfect lover and romance, but how many people a heroine can expect to reject. When I think through my favourite heroines, they all seem to be turning down proposals every other chapter. Aside from the multitude of proposals they receive, they almost always turn down the offer of the person they later expect. I don’t know about you, but I’m not receiving proposals every few months, and I’m pretty certain that if I rejected someone, and then changed my mind… they’d have moved on.
I’m currently re-reading North & South, one of my absolute favourites. For those of you who don’t know, it is essentially the plot line of Pride & Prejudice with a more actively political backdrop. This comparison is perhaps ironic as, from her letters, it would seem that Gaskell was scathing of Austen; but there’s literally a chapter called First Impressions so it’s hard not to notice the likeness between plots. In both novels, the heroine turns down a proposal early from a man we’re supposed to write off, turns down the proposal of the man she will later love, then changes her mind with the circumstances and accepts his second proposal. In fact, every single Austen heroine turns down at least one proposal. This absolutely makes sense to me. At the time of writing a woman’s only power was in who she married (and she seldom had much control over that) so to turn down a proposal was to exercise the fullness of your power. That’s terrible, of course, but if marriage is your only option then taking control of that decision means having autonomy over your life.
This plot line crops up over and over again: Anne of Green Gables (rejects one proposal, rejects the second but changes her mind and does marry this man), Little Women (rejects proposal, with the slight variation of not ultimately marrying him, but choosing another…) The list goes on and on; I’m sure you can think of many more examples. Whilst, I firmly believe that the intention was to highlight the power of refusing and the importance of taking control over one’s future life; it still sends a rather problematic message to women. Times have changed and, thank goodness, we now have far more control than merely over who we marry. I don’t want to feel that receiving multiple proposals is where fulfilment lies; or to be validated by being so attractive I can be sure of a second proposal if/ when I change my mind.
We need a new narrative. These are stories, many of which I love, but they are not life, they do not reflect the world we live in now, and we need to be very careful about what lessons we draw from them. Most of us will not get this plotline; we will not be proposed to multiple times or have people fall in love with us every few chapters. Modern day love lives are messy, and nothing like the romantic ideals contained in these pages. When I catch myself wishing I was Elizabeth Bennet or Margaret Hale, I remind myself that these brilliantly talented women would probably change places with me in a heartbeat. I’m quite convinced that they’d leave Mr Darcy or Mr Thornton for the chance of my education, career and opportunities.
These novels are ideals that you do not have to meet. Perhaps you are as political and intelligent as Margaret Hale, or as witty and enthusiastic as Elizabeth Bennet; or perhaps you are not. Even if you surpass these heroine’s qualities it is extremely likely that in the ‘real world’ you will experience rejection, embarrassment and heartbreak. These things don’t make you any less of a heroine. You can be as accomplished as the women you admired in books and, instead of all the proposals, still face rejection from the person that you love. That may be hard to accept, but there is comfort in knowing you are not alone. Don’t compare your love life to your favourite heroine, where the author could string together multiple loves and bring everything to a perfect conclusion. The fact we must live without an author to guide the pen, means that making mistakes is inevitable. My love life doesn’t even come close to my heroines but, however much I admire them, I would still choose my life over their plot.