Jane Austen vs. Jane Eyre – Comparing Pride and Prejudice’s Continued Dominance in the Modern Romance Industry to Jane Eyre’s Lesser Appeal to Modern Romance Readership
By Sullivan Brem (2021)
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 romance Jane Eyre were both prolific 19th-century romances. However, the modern romance industry remains crazed about Pride and Prejudice while Jane Eyre does not retain a following of nearly the same magnitude. Pride and Prejudice spinoffs in the romance genre are rife, even today, while reprises of Jane Eyre are far less numerous and more often spread across genres, very few of them written as romances (Davis, Ahlin 2020). Since the 1995 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the modern romance industry has witnessed an explosion of Austen’s influence, with exposure and adoration that have persisted across the decades. In contrast, Brontë’s Jane Eyre largely retains its prevalence as a historic relic rather than something to be remade in the modern romance genre. But just how extensive is the gap between the two novels’ popularity in the modern romance industry?
In order to address these topics, I have investigated each of the following:
- Austen’s dominating presence in modern romance conferences, workshops, and symposiums in comparison to Brontë or Jane Eyre over the past two years
- Modern receptions and reviews of each novel by ardent readers of romance via Goodreads and Amazon, including reviews from the last two decades
- Themes presented in modern discussion of the two novels over the past five years for purposes of further investigation
This report seeks to examine the magnitude of the disparities present in the popularity of the two novels in the current climate of the modern romance genre. Pride and Prejudice upholds its decades-long dominance of the modern romance genre, as Austen’s most popular novel is cited and referenced significantly more than Brontë’s core work in both conference settings and informal conversation. Through ethnographic methods, I will analyze the vast extent of this disparity in the modern romance industry and examine themes present in conversation within the industry that may shed light on possible reasoning for Pride and Prejudice‘s unquestionable dominance.
Prevalence of Jane Austen-Related Workshops in Modern Romance Conferences
Modern romance writers and readers engage in a plethora of conferences, symposiums, presentations, workshops, and writing retreats each year. Therefore, to acquire a sample manageable for investigation, I examined conferences occurring between 2019 and the end of 2021. My methods included a broad-scale search with particular attention to successful romance editor Rachel Daven Skinner’s “Romance Refined,” which markets itself as “the internet’s most complete list of romance conferences and conventions” (Skinner 2020). Skinner’s public online list currently includes all reported romance-related conferences from October 2020 through October 2022, compiling over 100 links to conference websites across the globe, including the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and West Africa.
The second conference on the list immediately jumps out: the annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which occurred in October 2020. And, though this conference was thematically centered upon Austen’s teenage writings that occurred before she wrote her famous six novels, there were two different workshops discussing Pride and Prejudice itself. Thus, Austen’s dominance in the romance genre, particularly through Pride and Prejudice, continues to be prominent enough to warrant an entire conference devoted to Austen-specific interests and presentations specific to Pride and Prejudice. This in itself demonstrates a following for which Brontë’s Jane Eyre has no comparable hold within the modern genre.
Further, upon examining the schedule of workshops and events within many of these romance-oriented conferences, particularly those focused on themes related to Victorian and/or regency romance, I found no mention of Charlotte Brontë nor Jane Eyre. In contrast, however, Austen is referenced often. In addition to an annual conference of her own, Austen influences the workshops and discussions of many speakers and panelists. In October of 2021, Piper Huguely, a renowned historical romance author, will present at the Buns & Roses Romance Tea for Literacy conference in Dallas, Texas. While the schedule of presentations for the 2021 conference has not yet been released, Huguely’s past workshops have referenced the “sweet romance” qualities of Pride and Prejudice. Huguely works to advance a subset of the genre that omits steamy scenes in favor of intimacy out of doors – a shocking brush of the hand, for instance, as occurs in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Piper Huguely is not alone, however. Many authors cite Austen’s most prominent novel in conference workshops, and multiple entire conferences and symposiums are ascribed to Pride and Prejudice itself. In June of 2019, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted “Pride and Prejudice and its Afterlives” for the annual Jane Austen Summer Program symposium, which included a slate of presentations centered on the novel’s modern renditions in fiction, film, and digital media. A particularly notable aspect of the symposium was that it featured modern authors of Pride and Prejudice-inspired romances centered on Indian, South Asian, and Indian American characters, including Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors (2019), Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last (2018), and the Pakistani inclusion of Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan (2019), among others (Fernandez 2019). Thus, the novel’s prevalence in conferences and workshops illustrates its dominating presence in the modern romance industry.
Additionally, although I found no mention of Charlotte Brontë nor Jane Eyre in current conference titles and schedules, this is not an explicit indication that the novel is not cited or referenced in various workshops. It does, however, indicate that Pride and Prejudice indubitably dominates Jane Eyre in terms of prevalence within modern romance conferences, symposiums, presentations, and workshops. My search yielded evidence of both Jane Austen- and Pride and Prejudice-centered conferences, yet not even a workshop relating to Jane Eyre over the past two years. The recent timeline of these conferences, too, makes evident that Pride and Prejudice’s ascension has not yet lost traction; it marks a continued popularity spanning almost three decades that is extraordinary within the romance genre. The magnitude of the disparity between the prevalence of these two prolific romances in the realm of romance writers’ conferences is immense, as Pride and Prejudice’s dominance is undisputed.
Modern Romance Readers’ Perceptions of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre
To further understand perspectives of each prolific 19th-century romance in the context of the modern romance industry, I undertook an extensive examination of reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads, platforms that ardent readers of romance frequently turn to in order to share and discuss informally, outside the more formal realm of conferences and workshops. When taken altogether, recent reviews signify that readers are more enthralled by the romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy than Jane and Mr. Rochester. Pride and Prejudice, for a variety of reasons, seems to appeal to modern ideals of the romance genre in a more poignant manner than Jane Eyre, as is exhibited through the discussion of each novel in modern, informal romance conversation.
While Goodreads reader Miranda defined Pride and Prejudice as “truly a great read, no matter the century” in 2018, Goodreads reader Siren claims they “didn’t believe the romance” in Jane Eyre (Miranda 2018, Siren 2017). In 2010, Stephen posted on Pride and Prejudice’s Goodreads page, “Overall, the writing could not have been better. It was descriptive, lush and brilliant. The story could not have been more engaging or intelligent and the characters could not have been more magnificentastic… Austen could not have written them better” (Stephen 2010). In contrast, also in 2010, Goodreads reader Vinaya outlines the following about Jane Eyre:
FIVE REASONS WHY JANE EYRE WOULD NEVER BE A BESTSELLER IN OUR TIMES:
5. Four hundred-odd pages of purely descriptive writing
4. Overt religious themes and moral preaching
3. A plain-Jane heroine who stays plain. No makeovers to reveal a hitherto hidden prettiness that only needed an application of hydrogen peroxide and some eyebrow plucking to emerge full-blown.
2. The world is not well-lost for love. In the war between self-respect and grand passion, principles win hands down. Rousing, yet tender speeches do not make our heroine forsake her creed to fall swooning and submissive into her alpha’s arms.
1. NO SEX!!! (Vinaya 2010).
While “NO SEX!!!” characterizes both Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, modern readers seem to see less of the fantastical elements of romance in Jane Eyre than in Pride and Prejudice. Vinaya cites a “plain-Jane heroine” and a world that “is not well-lost for love” in Brontë’s seminal work, a far cry from the fantastical settings, circumstances, heroine, and hero that many romance readers fall in love with themselves when they read Pride and Prejudice. This fantasy aspect of the genre remains central to the industry; bestselling romance author Jayne Ann Krentz states, “like all the other genres, romance is based on fantasies and readers know it” (Krentz 1992, 2). In addition to addressing critics of the romance genre who have vocalized concerns about whether those who read romance novels, women in particular, can identify them as fantasy, she illustrates the identifiably fictional characteristics of romance, no matter how shrouded in realism they are. She states that readers of romance “do not expect the imaginative creations of romance to conform to real life any more than they expect the fantasies of any other genre to conform to the real world,” emphasizing the significance of the fantastical idealism shrouding Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance (Krentz 1992, 2). While Goodreads reader Emily claims, “I feel like an ass saying this but… who actually thinks this is a cute romance!? What the actual f!! …” about Jane Eyre, Amazon reviewer Edwin says about Pride and Prejudice, “it is perfect” (Emily 2017, Edwin 2020). Pride and Prejudice’s “perfect” world with idyllic characters and ideal circumstances further develops the novel’s popularity among a readership that identifies romance as fantasy; this perfection appeals to the fantastical interests of romance readership. Additionally, the first-person narration of Jane Eyre, too, renders the novel relatable, as it is reminiscent of a reader’s own internal monologue. In contrast, Austen’s free indirect discourse allows for an idealistic overarching awareness of each character’s innerworkings (Darwin 2013). This appeal to fantasy solidifies Pride and Prejudice’s popularity in modern romance conversation and reviews.
As illustrated in its predominance in formal romance conferences and workshops, Pride and Prejudice informal commentary also supersedes that of Jane Eyre on both Amazon and Goodreads. On Amazon, Pride and Prejudice has 22,661 global ratings while Jane Eyre has 12,872. On Goodreads, Pride and Prejudice has 3,200,518 ratings and 73,803 reviews while Jane Eyre has 1,705,086 ratings and 45,363 reviews. These are significant deficits, emphasizing that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice also holds a much more prominent position in informal discussions among the modern romance community than does Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
Themes for Further Inquiry
So what might be the reasons for these disparities? While no definitive conclusion can be reached without much deeper investigation, some meaningful areas for further research involve the role of race in the modern romance industry and its presence (or absence) in these two novels. Because romance is a genre of fantasy, the idealism of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starkly contrasts with the overt suffering that Jane faces in Jane Eyre (Krentz 1992, 2). The candidness of Brontë’s first-person narration did not reject human cruelty, or even obscure it as Austen did in the idyllic world of Pride and Prejudice. As a result, Jane Eyre offers a less idealized image of what it meant to be a young, unmarried woman in Victorian England (1837-1901) or the Regency era (1811-1820) than did Austen in 1813. In this way, Pride and Prejudice allows for a deeper escape from the tribulations of reality, providing a fantasy that is particularly appealing to romance readers.
Even today, conversation surrounding Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice in particular, remains highly idealized. In a 2017 column entitled “Reading Jane Eyre While Black,” Tyrese Coleman recounts a childhood endeavor to envision every character she read as Black. She states that “the switch was easiest to turn on with Jane Austen. Books like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion lend themselves to replacing white characters for black or any other kind of ethnicity because race is absent from the narrative… because Austen’s society is so definitively white” (Coleman 2017). The idealistic qualities of Pride and Prejudice are preserved by its complete separation from reality. These ideas are furthered by the New York Times, which cites Princeton professor Charlotte Johnson to elucidate these themes. Johnson claims that “a large part of [Austen’s] readership has always wanted to isolate her from the sort of messy hubbub of history, and to imagine that she lived in this quieter, more civil world. There is a deep longing to isolate Austen from all the storms and stresses of modernity” (Gross 2021). This fantastical preservation of the idealistic circumstances within Pride and Prejudice allows the novel to be a fantasy, an escape from reality that Jane Eyre does not allow to the same extent (Coleman 2017).
In April of 2021, Jane Austen’s House, a museum in Chawton, England that commemorates the iconic author, received significant backlash for announcing that future exhibits would elucidate Austen’s familial ties to the slave trade. Myretta Robens, the founder of a 500-member Austen fan group, the Republic of Pemberley, emphasizes that readers of Austen would prefer to keep reality and Austen’s worlds separate. She states, “It’s hard to talk about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and talk about the current environment in the same forum” (Gross 2021). Thus, fantasy is preserved. In contrast, however, Jane Eyre does not allow for the same thorough escape. Modern readers recognize Brontë’s depiction of harsher circumstances and a more realistic, less escapist world in Jane Eyre that addresses a racialized world with allusions to slavery and colonialism (Coleman 2017). While romance readers tend to reject Austen’s association with these themes, readers of Brontë cannot ignore them, as Tyrese Coleman’s testimonial illustrates.
Pride and Prejudice’s overwhelming predominance in modern romance conversation, both formally through conferences and workshops, and informally through book reviews and discussion sites, may relate to the harsher, more realistic world that Brontë creates in Jane Eyre. As a result, readers lose at least part of their ability to engage in the fantasy of romance and escape reality. While the establishment of a causal relationship would require much greater research, these themes remain fascinating for further inquiry.
The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the modern romance genre. This seems particularly significant, because this frenzy does not seem to have subsided in the industry as is typical of many other trends in romance. In contrast, however, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was comparably successful at the time of its publication in 19th-century England but does not hold nearly the magnitude of popularity of Pride and Prejudice in both formal and informal conversation in the modern romance genre and industry. Pride and Prejudice’s dominating presence within romance conversation indicates that genre enthusiasts seem to find something about Pride and Prejudice more appealing to modern romance than Jane Eyre, as demonstrated by the disproportionate magnitude of conferences, workshops, discussions, and reviews surrounding Pride and Prejudice over Jane Eyre.
If every novel seeks to reinvent, in some way, what it means to be an individual in the context that the author is writing in, Pride and Prejudice evidently does so in a manner that holds greater appeal to the modern romance genre than Jane Eyre. Despite advancing a potentially radical argument about the role of marriage in pre-Victorian society, Austen expertly mitigates the possible objections to her novel, depicting her characters and their actions in a noble light. She places love at the center of the story. Jane Eyre does not preserve the characters’ dignity in this way. Because fantasy is a central aspect of the romance genre, the more realistic nature of Jane Eyre may debilitate its modern popularity. Brontë’s more realistic novel’s incorporation of racial and colonial undertones, which are essentially absent from Pride and Prejudice, do not allow readers as thorough an escape as can be achieved in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While this is no conclusive argument, a fascinating area for further research involves the presence of these racial themes in Jane Eyre and their absence within Pride and Prejudice. They may further contribute to the immense disparities seen in the modern prominence of each of the two prolific 19th-century romances.
Ahlin, Charlotte. n.d. “11 Novels Inspired By ‘Jane Eyre’ To Pick Up Instead Of Re-Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Classic For The Tenth Time.” Bustle. Accessed March 19, 2021. https://www.bustle.com/p/11-novels-inspired-by-jane-eyre-to-pick-up-instead-of-re-reading-charlotte-brontes-classic-for-the-tenth-time-11951930.
Coleman, Tyrese. 2017. “Reading Jane Eyre While Black: The Privilege of Escapism is Not Allowed for Me.” Literary Hub. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://lithub.com/reading-jane-eyre-while-black/
Darwin, Emma. 2013. “Free indirect style: what it is and how to use it.” This Itch of Writing. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2013/09/free-indirect-style-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html
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Edwin, 2020. “The very essence of a novel.” Review of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Amazon, July 31, 2020. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2DPRODIYEHJ8Q/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B07HQY4VSN
Emily, 2017. “Jane Eyre.” Review of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Goodreads, April 14, 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1948481881?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1
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Skinner, Rachel Daven. 2020. “List of Romance Conferences and Conventions.” Romance Refined. Accessed April 20, 2021. http://www.romancerefined.com/list-of-romance-conventions-and-conferences.html
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Vinaya, 2010. “Jane Eyre.” Review of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Goodreads, December 21, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/135963844?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1