"The fundamental difference between the 19th century romantic novels and the contemporary romances that borrow heavily from them is in the self-possession of the heroines. Although the unmarried and all but dowerless Elizabeth Bennet and the orphan governess Jane Eyre are in positions of greater social vulnerability than their contemporary counterparts, neither 19th-century heroine is willing to sacrifice self-respect in order to gain financial security or love. …By contrast, the scenes in which Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele literally fall at the heroes’ feet and rely on the heroes’ strength to stand foreshadow each heroine’s willingness to stay in a relationship with a man whose dominance overwhelms her sense of self, and without whom she seems lost."
Kristina Deffenbacher, Professor of English at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/159709-lesser-shades-of-jane/#.UCHs_6LE1jI.facebook
What 19th century romance novelists were doing, which most modern ones are not, is very carefully examining, discussing and criticising the world around them in a conversation that was almost entirely held between women. Novelists during this period, especially romance novelists, were almost exclusively women, as were their readers. Men were still expected to read and write poetry if they were going to read and write any kind of art, because poetry was the higher art form, and also accessible only through the classical education that was denied to most women at the time. So women wrote (and read) novels, which were derided as ‘low’ forms of entertainment until men like Walter Scott and Charles Dickens came along and legitimised the medium by writing the first ‘historical’ and ‘state of the nation’ novels.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is probably one of the subtlest and smartest critiques of the way women like Elizabeth Bennett - self-possessed, opinionated, well-read, passionate - were portrayed in the media in the late 18th and early 19th century. A young, ‘over’-educated woman with opinions of her own was probably the most derided figure in the medium, soundly mocked as utterly self-deluded, ugly, undesirable, raised by fools and liked only by fools; at best she’d end up eventually repenting all her previous opinions and meekly settling down to spinsterhood, at worst she’d end up dying tragically by the end of the novel whilst its real heroine, a stereotypical feminine angel, married happily having surrendered herself entirely to her husband. Pride and Prejudice turned this formula on its head, making Elizabeth the desirable heroine because of her opinions, her education, her self-possession, and fiercely criticising the idea that a woman who gives up her entire self to (the idea of) a man/a marriage, can ever be truly happy (see, Mrs Bennett, and Charlotte, even Lydia).
In essence, the original, great romance novelists of the late 18th and early 19th century, were doing their best to engage with and subvert the problems they saw for women in particular in the world around them, especially in the ‘pop culture’ of the age, commentating in the only medium available to them. The current generation are interested only in pandering to popular culture, not taking it apart and shaking it up and calling out its bullshit - and therein lies the problem.
eh, i’m not sure i buy it.
we remember books by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte because they’re pretty fucking quality and have parts that remain relate-able across generations. however, if you look at 19th century literature, I can guaran-fucking-tee you that you will find extremely popular works of fiction that did marginalize women and generally uphold the status quo. We don’t hear about them because these things fade over time, leaving us with the false impression that earlier eras were somehow more creative and quality than our present generation.
I mean, yes, Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray are popular right now (and I sort of wonder if 50 Shades’ influence has been exagerrated but I got no data to back up this hunch :P). But so are books like the Hunger Games (*coughs over how much money its movie made*) which, for all its flaws- and it has many- has an active, complex heroine. it has a thinly veiled critique of American imperialism and wars. and people are eating that shit up, and lauding Katniss for her strength. It’s not a book, but Homeland- which has a woman at the heart of the show- just won a freaking Emmy and is a critical and commercial success. And it also engages with calling out all kinds of societal bullshit.
If you deride this generation as universally shallow, you’re not being accurate.
And two corollary points:
1) Men had been writing and reading narrative prose for a couple hundred years already. John Lyly, Thomas Elyot, Thomas Malory, Daniel Defoe, Miguel Cervantes, Goethe, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift — men had a few hundred years dominating the literary market, as so many other things. They were generally pointedly philosophical or satirical, not as straightforward narrative as we think of novels being, but they were the first few centuries of the form. And there were other ladies writing as well, long before Jane Austen and the Brontes — Aphra Behn was writing epistolary novels as well as plays during the late 17th century, for example.
2) You really, really, really mustn’t judge modern romance novels by Twilight and 50 Shades. Particularly in the last 15 years or so, at least among historical romance novels, the “bodice-ripper” has given way to books far more in the Pride and Prejudice mold. The heroines are frequently in the tomboy or bluestocking mien and are clearly meant to be the audience avatars — particularly for girls and women who want to be seen as special, as something different. In that respect, they occasionally have entirely different issues of sexism wrapped around them (slut-shaming and femininity-shaming), but they are certainly not of the “marriage or bust” stereotype. Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele are really not illustrative of all female heroines in romance (thank mercy).