If there’s an urtext for the rom-com I suppose it must be Pride and Prejudice. Shakespeare influenced the genre, but didn’t lay down its essential structure. As You Like It and Twelfth Night are perennially enjoyable but, as models, they’re too specific to the Elizabethan stage with their disguises and identity confusions. In the eighteenth century there was Fielding. But in Tom Jones the emphasis is on Tom’s picaresque scrapes, including a luckily unconsummated encounter with a woman who turns out to be his long-lost mother – more romp-com, in fact, than rom-com.
It was Jane Austen who first took as her subject the struggle of two young people in love to overcome obstacles on their way to the altar, and who chose to embed that struggle in a realistic social context. This has provided the model for endless romantic stories in which the motivation is love, the goal is marriage, and the filling in the narrative sandwich is all the stuff that gets in the way.
But Pride and Prejudice is actually more complicated than that, and the link between love and marriage is a lot murkier. For Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, marriage is a practical arrangement, the only way to achieve some degree of independence in a world where other careers are closed to women. And if that means being hitched to the risibly pompous Mr Collins, she’ll take it, rather than sink into despised and impoverished spinsterhood. For Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has long had her eye on Darcy as a son-in-law, marriage is nothing more than a system for cementing bonds between aristocratic dynasties. What's love got to do with it?
For Darcy it’s a work in progress. When he first meets the hideously vulgar Bennett family, he persuades his friend Bingley not to get engaged to the eldest daughter, Jane, wanting to rescue him from this damaging connection. But he doesn't follow his own advice, because he can’t get Jane’s sister Elizabeth out of his head.
In fact marriage in Pride and Prejudice is in a state of dynamic instability. My favourite moment is when Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to tell her to keep her hands off Darcy. The scene is memorable for purely dramatic reasons. But it also acts out the inter-generational struggle, when the old notion of marriage is confronted with the new and finds itself impotent in the face of change. Lady Catherine asserts her rights as a person of inherited wealth and power. Elizabeth is interested only in the news that Darcy might still be available. We take it for granted that Elizabeth should listen to her heart rather than to Lady Catherine, but it wasn’t always so obvious.
Today the institution of marriage is riding a new wave of dynamic instability. An unlikely alliance between the Conservative leadership and the centre-left parties has nudged it on its way. The Church of England, which lost its right to oversee English marriages in 1837, still clings to what remains of its moral authority. Tories in the shires hanker after traditional certainties. But Elizabeth Bennett stands up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the old hierarchies are subverted.