So I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels lately – what a surprise! And something struck me. Not for the first time, but for some reason I felt the need to define it, and respond to it. I call it: The Elizabeth Bennet Syndrome.
Here’s what it is (and you’ll surely recognize this plot point right away): that typical – almost expected – part of a romance novel, when the two main characters are just getting to know each other. And instead of hitting it off, they actually start out disliking the other. Sometimes mere annoyance or discomfort due to unfulfilled sexual tension, but often full-on “I can’t stand you” confrontations. Yes, just like Lizzie Bennet and her hate/love relationship with the inimitable Mr. Darcy, of Pride & Prejudice fame.
When Jane Austen does this, it works beautifully because (as we learn throughout the course of the story), Lizzie and Darcy really are a great match for each other, but this only comes about through communication, gradual understanding, and seeing Darcy in a clingy white shirt after a hot&sexy swim in his (huge, rich) mansion’s pond. However, honestly, even when reading the original Pride & Prejudice, Darcy & Elizabeth’s relationship is not my favorite. No, I’m a fan of Bingley and Jane.
In stark contrast to her sister, Jane Bennet falls for Mr. Bingley, the all-around nice guy. (Not as rich as his friend, incidentally, but sufficiently well off for a practical Regency gal). Jane and Bingley are instantly attracted to one another, not merely physically, but also because they have similar, complimentary personalities and worldviews. Basically, they are a perfect match.
So why do we swoon for the Darcy’s of the world, and not the Bingley’s? Why do so many romance novels have characters who dislike each other in the beginning, and then fall in love? Why not fall for the nice guy first?
Part of it, I think, is the idea that the more “tension” you have in your relationship, the more passionate it is. Darcy and Lizzie argue, which leads us to envision bedroom delights of the tie-up-throw-down variety. (You know, the fun kind!) Whereas happy, easygoing Jane & Bingley don’t demonstrate that outward confrontation. Sex is a game and a battle; who’s on top, who’s setting the rhythm; who climaxes first; who yells and who thrashes. It’s all about control and submission, just like an argument, really.
The problem I have is how this translates to expectations, in literature and in the real world. As authors, we are taught that stories must have conflict. So when writing romance, naturally it is tempting to pit the protagonists against one another, only to bring them together in a blaze of exploding hormones later on. I get it; tension is hot, it gets the pulse going, it keeps you turning the pages, wondering how they will end up together. The less they like one another in the beginning, the more dramatic their eventual relationship seems on the page.
But life is not really like that. From personal experience, I can tell you that usually, the guy you don’t like at first is actually a guy you will not like, ever. Probably, he’s a jerk. Maybe controlling, maybe just has personal issues, or someone you don’t click with for whatever reason. That does not make the sex better. (The opposite is often true, in fact; those guys can be selfish in bed, and I don’t care how much erotic tension there is between you, if he’s crap in the sack, he’s not worth your time!) On the other side of the coin, couples who just seem to get along and be cool together can have awesome, passionate, kinky sex lives. True relationships are built on respect and communication. So is great sex. (We don’t read about it, but I bet sweet Mr. Bingley has some unexpected tricks up his perfectly tailored sleeves… lucky Jane!)
We need to see more of that represented in literature and film. Not only because it’s true – and I like to seek truth in fiction – but also because it’s way more interesting than retelling Elizabeth Bennet’s story. That’s been done over and over again. And seriously folks, Jane Austen already did it best.