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From Pride and Prejudice to Normal People – love stories in literature

Normal People is in the news, but this time the fuss is not about the book, but about the television adaptation. It has broken records with 16.2 million requests for the series on catch up service BBC iPlayer in its first week.

Which begs the question, what is it about Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel that has sparked such interest?

I haven’t seen the adaptation, but for me, the book was such a true reflection of the insecurities of this 20-something stage of life, and all of the social pressures around relationships.

It also reflected the misunderstandings and miscommunications of early relationships, which are largely tiny steps forward as each member becomes more confident in their and their partner’s feelings. And as for Marianne and Connell, there are just as many steps backwards caused by small hurts and petty jealousies.

Another contemporary relationship story that struck a similar chord for me was Cat Person, the short story published in The New Yorker that spread virally a few years ago, speaking to a generation.

To describe this as a ‘boy meets girl’ story is to misrepresent it – while this is what happens, it reveals none of its awkward horror. It is definitely no modern love story, but it does encapsulate a certain modern relationship.

All of this brings to mind a very different relationship, but one which is not without its missteps, tentative first steps, and the insecurities of those involved. It is one of literature’s most famous loves stories between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Having recently read Pride and Prejudice, I was amazed at how well this love story had aged, more than two hundred years since it was first published. In some ways, it is not so far removed from the modern love stories that are catching the world’s attention now.

While the modern manners might not reflect today’s standards of behaviour, it is easy to imagine many elements of the story in a contemporary setting, just without the mobile phones and Facebook. While Connell is no Mr Darcy, there are behaviours in the classic love story that are recognisable to modern couples.

There is Elizabeth’s initial hurt at an overheard comment, the arrogance of Mr Darcy before his eventual humbling as he realises how he loves Elizabeth’s eyes and spirit, and Elizabeth’s gradual realisation of Mr Darcy’s appeal. It is a relationship that does not run smoothly, but is bumpy and complicated.

Even outside of the central love story, the peripheral relationships are familiar even in modern times. There is the  fraught relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennett, the practical arrangement between Mr Collins and Charlotte, the happily-ever-after of Jane and Mr Bingley and the marriage of compromise between Lydia and Mr Wickham.

But, we all know, it is all about Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, for whom, as in Normal People, there are steps forward and backwards, complications, and the constant redrawing of lines in the relationship. The very frustration of all of the missteps made by Marianne and Connell in Normal People are part of the realistic charm of the novel, reflecting the indecision and complexity of relationships, now and long ago.

Much needs to fall into place for love to prevail, now and long ago. It is clear that that the complexity of love ties together the most modern of relationships and the most classic of love stories.

Normal People is available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (the US and UK).

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