19th-century literature constrains our concepts of love, scholars say
2-dimensional heroines in 'exalted madness' are reflected in current narratives
Depictions of love in Victorian novels can have a corrosive influence on what we expect from our love lives today.
Elissa Gurman, a University of Toronto PhD student who studies tropes of women falling in love in 19th-century Victorian novels, has noticed that again and again a heroine is transformed from a feisty independent thinker to someone who's gone mad with emotion, unable to think for herself.
The heroine is unexpectedly swept off her feet, and that experience has set the standard for people's expectation of real love.
"We continue to feed the fantasy of love as way of escaping self," says Lisa Rodensky, professor of English at Wellesley College and editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel. "It becomes that which defines you."
Gurman argues that these complex and inspiring heroines are reduced to two-dimensional caricatures that fall in love the same way, where love becomes an "exalted madness."
"The only substantial choice a heroine is given in these novels is, 'Do I marry this dude, or do I not?'" says Gurman, in her fifth year of her English literature doctorate.
"I find it so challenging to see that this one choice is co-opted by forces beyond her control. If you think about these women in love as incapable of consent and incapable of choice, we're denying them their humanity."
The trope of crazy woman in love found in modern pop culture love plots inspired the creation of events put on by the Drunk Feminist Films collective.
"A lot of these movies speak to people's fantasies. It seems easy when people are two-dimensional, relationships are so much easier," says Drunk Feminist Films co-founder Gillian Goertz.
She also studied 19th-century literature for her undergraduate degree and was a member of a Facebook group for those who blame Jane Austen for setting up false expectations of love.
She also points to the character of Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project as a good example of how popular fiction can mess with a person's expectation of love. Mindy Lahiri strives to make her life fit into romantic-comedy tropes and is frustrated when it doesn't work.
"It's a great example of how women are set up to fail by watching romantic comedies," says Goertz.
Historian Elizabeth Abbott points out that prior to the 19th century, marriage was understood to be a practical economic arrangement, with little expectation of one's spouse to inspire passionate love.
"It was very practical," says Abbott, who is author of A History of Marriage and other books on the history of intimate relationships between men and women.
"Men and women today could learn to think [more] about marriage as a practical lived experience."