I’ve recently read 7 Figure Fiction: How to Use Universal Fantasy to Sell Your Books to Anyone by Theodora Taylor, and she has a lot to say about fairytale elements we all know and love. Her argument is that many of these transcend fantasy or mystery or any particular genre–they are delicious story elements that are universally loved.
For instance, she describes a universal fantasy of “servants who love to serve.” Think of the house elves in Harry Potter (Dobby forever!), the servants at the Beast’s castle like Lumiere and Cogsworth, all the way to Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper at Pemberley. Mrs. Reynolds is a small element in the book, but every movie adaptation keeps her in, because there is something delicious about a servant who is supremely happy about their position and devoted to a good master. We like Mr. Darcy better because of her, and we get to picture how well she and Lizzy will get along, and how well Lizzy will be taken care of by Darcy’s devoted staff!
Jane Austen uses many universal fantasies in her novels–most authors do–and one that she did so smashingly well that she still dominates romance lists today is a subverted Cinderella.
There are (according to Theodora Taylor’s classification) a number of universal fantasies in what we think of as the basic Cinderella story. A true love match, devoted servants (the mice were the real stars of the cartoon, amirite?!), the makeover, and more. One of the main fantasies, however, is the choosing factor: the wealthiest/most powerful/most popular guy chooses you!
And of course, the Cinderella or Elizabeth Bennet character is worthy of being chosen. Cinderella is kind and sweet and patient; Lizzy is intelligent, humorous, and (also) kind. They are largely unrecognized by those around them as being very special. Lizzy’s father recognizes it somewhat, but her mother favors Lydia. This makes the choosing by The Rich, Hot Guy all the sweeter.
This type of story, however, while appealing to our sense of lottery-winning, beauty-pageant triumph, is exciting, but it can leave the heroine without much agency. That’s something Disney is grappling with in a number of their fairy-tale remakes, and good luck to them, because it ain’t easy to fix. Particularly in a two-hour film without majorly changing the story and infuriating their fan-base!
But Jane Austen did it with such perfection that it’s breathtaking. Darcy, while being worthy of Lizzy, isn’t worthy of her yet. In fact, his pride is a fatal flaw (at least emotionally fatal) and Lizzy has to and needs to reject him.
Now we have a whole other universal fantasy–the hero will do anything for a lady even though he doesn’t think it will win her! He doesn’t even want her to know what service he does her because he is so in love he doesn’t want to pressure her. He is out of hope, but proves what a selfless person he can be anyway.
He is the Beast, allowing Belle to leave the castle because he loves her, even though it will mean his death. He is Rick in Casablanca, who prevents Ilsa from staying with him, because he is sure she will deeply regret it. Their love story ends tragically, but this act of sacrificial true love on his part is a major moment of its universal appeal.
Jane Austen subverts Cinderella to get the best of both–the worthy prince and the reformed/sacrificial hero. Don’t our toes just curl when we realize Darcy has left the hotel in Lambton only to dash to London to help Lydia? We wait with baited breath for Lydia and then Mrs. Gardiner to spill the beans!
So, in short, we get the Cinderella fantasy of the richest and most powerful man choosing Elizabeth, but then we get the Beast fantasy of Mr. Darcy completing his arc to become worthy and being chosen in return. And somehow Jane Austen keeps Darcy from becoming a Byronic or anti-hero, which often goes along with this fantasy (now you can contrast this with Casablanca and Beauty and the Beast, who had dark, Byronic heroes). Mr. Darcy is both worthy and unworthy at the beginning of the book, and it works because Elizabeth is both worthy and unworthy, too.
I know I am preaching to the choir: all of you are fully aware of Jane Austen’s genius! But thank you for following along as I tease out another reason her writing captivates me.
Happy reading! (Now I gotta go find me one of those devoted servants.)
P.S. Check out my latest romance on Amazon: Mary Crawford has made poor decisions based on a poor upbringing–can she learn to love selflessly before her mistakes drag her under?