If you've ever swooned over "Pride and Prejudice" or wished you could move to "Mansfield Park," you're undoubtedly aware that romance has changed a lot over the years.
Sometimes for the better, obviously: There's the convenience of internet dating, and the lack of restrictive underwear, and the part where you don't have to worry anymore that you'll be doomed to permanent spinsterhood if you're not married by the age of 22.
On the other hand, though… well, let's put it this way: Mr. Darcy would never send Elizabeth Bennett an unsolicited pic of his wiener.
Love is a weird game nowadays, and nobody seems to know how to play it. Which is probably why, when we want a story to make us swoon, we often opt for one that was set in a time before smartphones, or the internet, or even electricity. But what is it about those old-school, Regency-era love affairs that makes them the gold standard for romance? Do we all just secretly wish we could go back to a time when the dating norms were as structured and unforgiving as the underwear?
We asked two experts to weigh in.
The easier it is for love to win, the harder it is to write a good story about it.
Patrice Kindl knows firsthand that old school love stories are just more fun to tell: She's the author of "A School for Brides," a new homage to classic Regency romances that hit bookstores this week.
"Modern romance is hard to write because there aren’t enough reasons why true love should not win out," Kindl told MTV News via email. "Parents don’t have the power they once had over their children. But several hundred years ago there were endless reasons why two loving hearts should not become one: status, money, religion, family feuds, and so on and so on."
But true romance requires free will on all sides
Obstacles plus uncertainty equals more romantic drama, but one of the things that shouldn't stand in the way of your love story is the woman's right to self-determination. We wouldn't want to see a strong female character forced into a marriage against her will, and that might be one reason why so many great romances are set within this very narrow time period.
"My theory is that this era was the moment in history when women began to emerge from millennia of being entirely subject to their male family members," Kindl wrote. "For the first time it was generally accepted (at least in England) that a young woman had the right of refusal. She could not propose marriage – no, certainly not – but she could say yea or nay, and her decision would be accepted as final."
Imagine if Lizzie Bennett hadn't been allowed to turn down the insipid Mr. Collins? The horror!
And of course, the trappings of the era aint bad, either.
A P.S. from the author: "Don’t forget the gorgeous clothes and clever repartee!"
But that's fiction: What about real life?
Do we really want to go back to the days of fewer choices, chaperoned dates, and no premarital sex, ever? According to Dr. John Van Epp, a clinical counselor and author of "How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk," the answer is no — but in the Wild West of modern dating, a few Austen-esque rules wouldn't hurt.
"Equality of women wasn't then what it is today, and that's historically shameful. You wouldn't want to go back to that. But when there are no taboos, too much individual freedom starts to feel anxiety-provoking — like you have no right to be bothered by what someone else does," he told MTV News.
In other words, we don't need to go back to the days when a woman was "ruined" if she fell for the wrong guy — but it would be nice to have some social norms that make it shameful to be careless with people's hearts.
"We really do need consequences and repercussions," said Dr. Van Epp. "If romance is all individual freedom, it's like trying to play soccer without any rules — just letting every player choose their own. It would be havoc, and people would get hurt."
Plus, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett never suffered from Tinder-fueled FOMO
If you feel like modern romance sounds a lot like the aforementioned chaotic game already, you're not alone: According to our expert, too many options and too little structure really are making dating more difficult than ever:
"We've moved from highly structured courtship to a sort of free-for-all. In that era, dating involved family input, economic concerns, and you would have been a lot younger. Now you're more likely to be in your mid-twenties, with no real system for selecting a partner, knowing what to look for, and figuring out if this person is not just good for you but marriageable," Dr. Van Epp explained.
And while dating apps do some of that work for us, it comes with a downside:
"Even online dating companies acknowledge that having too many options can be overwhelming. And once you're in a relationship, there's an increased sense that there's always somebody else out there, that maybe there's a better match for me."
In other words: Even if you find someone in the vast online dating pool who you'd like to swipe right on a long-term basis, the ease of finding someone else makes you less likely to stick with it if things get tough.
If you want a relationship that's Regency-era romantic, you're gonna have to lose your chill
So, what's a girl (or guy) who wants a love story worthy of Jane Austen to do? In a time when hookup culture reigns and there's no agreed-upon point at which "hanging out" becomes "in a relationship," you'll have to make your own rules — and find someone who genuinely wants to follow them.
"Commitment," said Dr. Van Epp, when I asked him what people are really yearning for when they swoon over old-school love stories. "Commitment is investment. Commitment is structure. And commitment is an agreed-upon definition of what your relationship is. We're not just talking about norms and rules; we're talking about giving the relationship a framework. When you're going out with someone and don't really know what you are, there's no understanding."
It's not hard to identify the magic of commitment at work in stories like "Pride and Prejudice." The obstacles that stand in the way of love are things like mismatched fortunes, disapproving dowager aunts, or pre-existing engagements that everyone is too polite to break; you would never see one of Austen's leading men dithering about his intentions and whining that he doesn't see why relationships need labels.
Plus the fact that one of the most swoon-worthy scenes in any Regency romance, ever, is the one in which Darcy utterly loses his chill and has to tell Lizzie how he feels? Probably not a coincidence.
Said our expert, "It's the difference between a sense of predictability, stability, understanding, and making thirty matches on Tinder that turn out to be no-shows."
And if you want a classic romance IRL, you don't have to don a corset, attend a school for brides, or hire Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess to referee your dates (although let's be real, that might be pretty fun.) But a few Regency-era rules — particularly the ones that say you should be clear about your intentions, committed in your relationships, and careful with other people's feelings — would be a good place to start.