You’d be hard-pressed to find a romance author who doesn’t cite Jane Austen as an inspiration, and Lisa Berne is no different. Her latest, You May Kiss the Bride, follows Livia Stuart, an orphan without a cent to her name, and Gabriel Penhallow, a man bound to his family’s noble name. The two get off to a rocky start, but soon their feelings of animosity give way to attraction, and then love. Here, Berne shares a list of ways that Austen has inspired her and other romance authors.
More than 200 years after their publication, Jane Austen’s books still speak to us—still make us think, laugh, and swoon a little, too. The novels’ themes of love and marriage also continue to inspire historical romance novelists everywhere. What is it, exactly, that keeps her work so relevant to us writers, as well as to the romance community at large? I suggest it’s because Austen embeds her stories with enduringly powerful ideas and motifs. Here are a few of them.
Intelligence is a game-changer
Set in an era during which women were all too often viewed as decorative objects, Austen’s heroines—despite intense familial and social pressure to conform—think their way through things. For Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price to reject Henry Crawford? Astonishing! Today’s historical romance readers expect heroines to make self-affirming choices too, whether it’s through book smarts, emotional intelligence, business acumen, or any of the other various qualities that denote solid brainpower.
Appearances can be deceiving
Oh, that dashing John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, literally sweeping Marianne Dashwood off her feet. But, alas, he’s got a rotten core. And what about cold, condescending Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice? Turns out he’s hiding a good heart and a passionate nature. In the high-stakes game of love, people can go to great lengths to conceal their flaws, fears, and desires. Our historical heroines often struggle with the same dilemma—how to sort out the real from the false—as they fight for what they want and deserve.
Laughter is sexy
Among Austen’s wide range of characters, those who deploy humor are often cited as favorites. Consider witty, playful Elizabeth Bennet in P&P who famously declares, “I dearly love a laugh,” and Northanger Abbey’s adorable Henry Tilney. As “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon says, we’re instinctively drawn to people who make us laugh: “Humor is a reliable, hard-to-fake sign of genetic quality.” Today we still love a laugh, as the many fans of Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Tessa Dare—three of the best-known purveyors of fun historical romps—will attest.
People can change
Austen herself said that Emma Woodhouse was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma is a tough sell. She’s annoyingly smug and bossy. But not only does Emma learn some hard lessons about herself, she’s able to take this information and become a kinder, wiser person—leaving us confident that she really has earned her happy ending. And that’s what we want from our historical characters too. We love seeing them change, grow, and flourish, both as individuals and as a firmly bonded couple.
Still waters run deep
My two favorite Austen heroines—Persuasion’s Anne Elliot and Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price—are quiet, sensitive, and deeply emotional. Others may think they’re pushovers or take them for granted, but it’s their unwavering moral compass, their steadfast inner strength, which ultimately gains them their hearts’ desires. This trope is an eternally popular one, and for good reason: Who doesn’t root for the wallflower, the introvert, the underdog? There’s something very special about the against-the-odds happily-ever-after.
In Austen’s day, marriage was often a woman’s only bulwark against deprivation, degradation, or worse. That her books are wedding-obsessed reflects a very real and practical response to her world. Yet she also, radically, makes the case for personal happiness over pragmatism. Elizabeth Bennet really should accept icky Mr. Collins’ proposal for the sake of her family’s security. But she doesn’t, and that is a stunning act of subversion. This bold championing of happiness over every other consideration is why romance novels continue to not only outsell other genres, but also to joyfully illuminate the human heart and mind.
Lisa Berne read her first historical romance at fourteen—it was Georgette Heyer’s effervescent Lady of Quality—and was instantly captivated. Later, she was a graduate student, a teacher, and a grant writer, and now writes historical romance for Avon/HarperCollins. Her first book in the Penhallow Dynasty series, You May Kiss the Bride, has recently been published to starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. She lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.