The Bachelorette's Heading to Hometowns. Jane Austen's Been There.

Bachelorette Katie Thurston has a choice - and her journey to that choice is right out of Austen: very public, hotly competitive, and involving an elaborate set of rules.

Dear friends,

We interrupt regular programming briefly to talk about … yes, The Bachelorette.

Your reaction to this reality-television interlude is probably going to go one of two ways: Either, what on earth does Jane Austen have to do with reality television? 

Or, you’re thinking: Of course! The Bachelorette is a modern-day Jane Austen novel! 

Whatever your reaction, here we are: Tonight, ABC’s mammoth reality-television dating series takes us into Hometowns week, where this 17th season’s Bachelorette Katie Thurston visits the homes and meets the families of her final contenders.

So: What on earth could Jane Austen possibly have to say to a young woman who’s signed up to go through a very public, obsessively controlled courtship drama that will unfold on full display and will end in a life-changing real-life engagement to someone she barely knows?

The answer, friends - and some of you are already with me here - is that Jane Austen’s novels are also about young women going through a very public, obsessively controlled courtship drama that unfolds on full display and ends in a life-changing real-life engagement to someone she barely knows

The Bachelorette Katie Thurston has a choice to make - but contestant Andrew S., like a Jane Austen hero, wants to be chosen.
Beloved bachelorette contestant Andrew S, like Austen’s hero Knightley, wants to be chosen by the one he chooses. Even if that means losing the game. Photo:ABC/Craig Sjodin

While finding someone to love and marry on national television might seem like a contemporary pathology, the fact is it takes us back to the Regency era, where the process was very formal, very public, and conformed to an elaborate set of rules. 

The constant challenge for Bachelorette contestants is to “get time” with their person - to try to get to know each other in some meaningful way in the midst of intense competition, and in the midst of a circus of public interest, and doing so mostly without talking about the things that matter - like money, politics, or religion. 

As it happens, these are also the challenges of Lizzy, Emma, Catherine, and your favorite Jane Austen heroines, from Pride and Prejudice to Northanger Abbey.

Jane Austen was the master of what we English Lit majors call the Courtship Plot. It’s very structured and condensed, but events within that careful frameworking can be confusing and hectic, as is The Bachelorette

Is it not entirely outlandish to imagine Darcy, Knightley, and Henry Tilney, facing off in front of those cameras with Willoughby, Wickham and Frank Churchill, trying to one-up each other, outsmart each other, and capture our hearts? 

And our favorite reality television show takes that courtship plot and puts it in a time wrinkle, a little like a novel does. Katie’s entire chronology of premarital dating is crammed into one prime-time season, from the first problematic person (looking at you, Luke, season 15) to the exciting types (Andrew!). Ultimately she’ll choose the person, as season 15’s Hannah Brown says, who looks good pushing a pram in the park (hello, Michael). In The Bachelorette, rather than your dating life playing out over years, instead it plays out within a few weeks - and most likely with more men than you’d date in a normal year. Cameras are rolling.

Is it not entirely outlandish to imagine Darcy, Knightley, and Henry Tilney, facing off in front of those cameras with Willoughby, Wickham and Frank Churchill, trying to one-up each other, outsmart each other, and capture our hearts? 

As in any Jane Austen novel, bachelorette Katie Thurston’s journey this next week involves a choice - and the journey to that choice will be right out of Austen: very public, hotly competitive, and involving a lot of negotiation, guesswork, and an elaborate set of rules. 

So how is it done successfully? 

Here are seven tips, straight from the novels, and straight from Jane:

1-Look for style vs substance.

Jane Austen’s seminal dichotomy is for you, Katie Thurston. It might be considered Jane Austen’s big thing, and it’s really about the Real vs. the Fake. The bachelorettes - in true Austen spirit - seem to know this. Every single episode that I remember involves our heroine saying, pleading, some version of: If you are not real, leave. Please show me your true self.

That’s because: Even though this is television, genuine, authentic affection is the only place to start, in Jane Austen, in The Bachelorette, and in life.

And when you only have a few dates, limited time, and everything is on display, just like a Jane Austen heroine you will need to quickly figure out who’s real and who’s playing the game to win. 

Jane Austen’s advice? Go for the quiet, reserved, honest guy vs. the loud, fancy, proclaiming one. For Katie this means: Goodbye, Thomas. Hello, Greg.

2-Be Judgy

Jane Austen’s leading characters are, famously, as judgy as it gets - We’re looking at you, Darcy and Elizabeth, whose “pride” and “prejudice” is iconic, and ultimately stems from misplaced judgement. 

But that judgement muscle is important to your survival - so use it. 

Like Katie, Austen’s characters are forced to make decisions about their future in very public, limited settings, and within the confines of strict rituals. Lizzy and Jane have balls and visitations; you have cocktail parties and rose ceremonies. In both cases, you need to wear your astuteness like armor. 

3-Don’t talk about money, religion or politics

Have you ever noticed that no one on The Bachelorette ever talks about anything that matters? I’m assuming that the contestants have at least filled out some sort of questionnaire with details about their salary, money and property holdings (money and property being a big factor in Jane Austen’s novels, of course). And also declared what their politics are, and what their religious and moral deal-breakers might be. So, Katie, your producers already seem to have this one down. 

In Jane Austen as in The Bachelorette, we are drilling below those surface considerations to get to the matters of the heart. There’s one exception, in Season 15, when Hannah B tells the religious Luke she has after all had sex with his competitors, adding, something to the effect of, “And you know what? Jesus still loves me!” So that’s how that religious sharing worked out. 

[W]hen you only have a few dates, limited time, and everything is on display, just like a Jane Austen heroine you will need to quickly figure out who’s real and who’s playing the game to win. 

So I guess the advice here is: Get the money, politics, and religion sorted, off the page and off-camera. Then see if your souls speak to each other.

The Bachelorette Katie Thurston, like a heroine in a Jane Austen regency novel, navigates a set a tough choices and rituals.
Bachelorette Katie Thurston, like Austen’s Lizzy Bennet, must navigate a courtship ritual that is very formal, very public, and conforms to an elaborate set of rules, with the end goal being an engagement. Photo: ABC/Andrew Eccles

4-Take Stock.

Speaking of resources though, as we’ve pointed out in the Austen Connection before, Jane Austen’s novels famously calculate resources - the inner resources and character as well as the outer resources (that famous 10,000 pounds per year of Mr. Darcy’s). Both matter. 

During Hometown week, look for the communion of the souls, judge the character, but also make sure you and your contestant are on the same page about the practical things. Jane would never have her characters marry for money or “without affection” - this is something that, judging from the messages of the novels, she was openly, wholeheartedly opposed to. However, like Charlotte Lucas, Austen’s women also know that they have to find love in a world that they can afford to live in, comfortably. Employer-based healthcare is also good. 

It’s a matter of not just comfort, also survival. Take stock.

5-Listen to your parents and family - or not! 

Hometowns week is all about meeting the family. And one of the most surprising things about Jane Austen’s novels? She doesn’t put much stock in what your elders say. 

Her novels supply a parade of interfering aunts, neglectful fathers and brothers, dangerously silly mothers and ludicrous neighbors. And that’s not to mention outright Cruelllas (Lady Catherine, Darcy’s domineering aunt), dictators (the patriarchal plantation-owner Sir Thomas), and mercenaries (Sir Walter, General Tilney - both terrible fathers). 

Jane Austen would encourage our bachelorettes of the world to judge astutely, and make sure your judgement is better than that of your parents and that of society - which often focuses on the wrong things (again, back to: religion, money, politics). 

Basically, be astute, be realistic, and then haul off on your own and follow your heart, girl.

6 - Except for your Sister. 

When all else fails, lean on your sister. This season, bachelorette Katie Thurston is joined by two previous bachelorettes, Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe - they’ve walked in her shoes, they’ve navigated those tricky corners, and they’ve come out the other side of the maze. 

And they provide a sort of Lizzy-Jane sisterhood where Katie can sit back and analyze her thoughts on the guys. 

In the Bachelorette as in Jane Austen, stand by your sisters - Season 17 bachelorette Katie Thurston has Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe, just like Elizabeth Bennet had sister Jane.
In The Bachelorette and in Jane Austen, it’s good to rely on your sisters to get you through. Pictured here are Bachelorette Katie Thurston, Tayshia Adams, and Kaitlyn Bristowe. Photo: ABC/Craig Sjodin

It’s a Bachelorette version of Lizzy and Jane, who subtly swoon and speculate about Bingley and Darcy, in the bedroom at night while brushing out their hair. 

But remember - it’s not just swooning taking place - it’s also military-like maneuvering, through dangerous currents, that’s being deployed in these conversations - with life-changing consequences, both in the Regency and on ABC. 

7-Find the one who will respect, trust, and challenge you.

In Jane Austen, your life partner will make you or break you. An intelligent, thoughtful partner with strong character and integrity, will encourage the same in yourself. Not only that - but you need to be able to communicate your strengths and your weaknesses to each other, and listen to each other, and that will make you the person worthy of being married to. 

One way to quickly know someone is not faking love for the gamesmanship of it, is if they call you out on something - they are taking a risk here, to make you and your relationship stronger.

Look for the partner who is respectful, kind, loving and trusting - but who also has the courage to let you know when you are a danger to yourself or others. 

In Jane Austen: this is the famous Knightley challenge to Emma, when she openly, famously insults a vulnerable spinster: “Badly done!” 

And then, when challenged: Listen to each other, and find the way through. 

Any bachelorette or bachelor needs to look for the person who will be capable of challenging them to be better, and communicating these things effectively. Jane said! 

Lizzy and Jane have balls and visitations; you have cocktail parties and rose ceremonies. In both cases, you need to wear your astuteness like armor. 

And now, guys - a bonus tip for you, also from Aunt Jane: Hold on to your hats, and put a lid on your jealousy.

In the Regency, women have only, as Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey puts it, the “right of refusal.” He’s alluding to the fact that Regency men are called to all the action in courtship, while the women can merely wait and either accept or refuse what comes their way. 

In reality television, and in the insane world of The Bachelorette, this gets turned upside down - and a lot of the drama and craziness comes from the fact that she is dating all these guys at once. And not only that, they’re all rooming together. 

Who would sign up for this? Surely not Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley or Captain Wentworth.

But take another cue from Mr. Knightley, Austen’s handsome, older and judgiest leading man. When Knightley is forced to observe exactly the kind of scene that so many of the bachelorette contestants get in a stew over - watching a calculating, manipulative guy compete for the affections of our heroine, in this case it’s the frivolous, fake Frank Churchill, flirting with Emma. What does he do? He stands by - -calmly, though wickedly skeptical and seething.

While Knightley, as we’ve said, is judgmental and sometimes critical of Emma, ultimately he waits.

Did you catch that, Bachelor Nation? Like the beloved Andrew, the Austen leading man always knows he can only be with the person, ultimately, who sees the right way and chooses him. Even if that means losing the game.

Ultimately, Katie Thurston, Elizabeth Bennet, and every bachelor or bachelorette in the universe has to do just that: Make up your own mind. 

So the best you can do is to judge carefully, communicate honestly, and act kindly - and then look to your sisters for help along the way. 

What do you think, friends?

Which of Austen’s leading men would win this season on The Bachelorette

What about Austen heroines? Lizzy would likely get a kick out of the experience - but I shudder to think what would become of our dear Fanny Price (but, in true Austen-heroine style, she’d do better than we’d give her credit for).

Are you a bachelor or bachelorette who draws on the wisdom of Jane Austen? How has reading Jane influenced your dating life, if at all? Do tell!

You can comment below, or get in touch at austenconnection@gmail.com.

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And now - reports are circulating there’s actually a reality dating show coming from Peacock that involves a Bridgerton- or Pemberley-theme. 

We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry, but we’ll definitely be watching this space (why do I suddenly feel I’m using the voice of Lady Whistledown?) 

If you would like to have these conversations dropped into your inbox each week, sign up for free Austen Connection conversations, here:

Cheers, friends! Wishing you many prudent choices - and all the roses - in love and life. 

Yours,

Plain Jane

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