What’s going on here? A romance novel is seriously making the hero fall for a girl simply because she adored him first?
“[T]hough Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Shouldn’t there be something grander? Shouldn’t she have been the prettiest girl in the room, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? (But in real life, there’s always someone prettier). Shouldn’t he have somehow found her absolutely unique? (But everyone blurs together until we take the time to get to know them.) Shouldn’t she have hidden her feelings until he’d fallen good and hard for her? (But Jane Austen knew this didn’t work– “Few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”)
Northanger Abbey is perhaps Jane Austen’s attempt to inject a little ‘realism’ into novels–most deliberately in her attempts to spoof Gothic novels by showing how the spooky can be very ordinary (mysterious papers turn out to be a laundry list, a mean-spirited man turns out to be driven by greed rather than remorse or guilt)–but perhaps also in her handling of the romance between the central characters, Henry and Catharine. He falls in love with her because she was in love with him! He falls in love out of gratitude!
But this is realistic! Who doesn’t find their opinion of someone improving because we know they like us? I’ve experienced it myself, when people have straight-up told me they enjoy hanging out with me, I find myself wanting to hang out with them more. Because they told me they like me, it takes the pressure off. I don’t have to wonder what they think about me being myself. I know, so I can just be myself. And focus on getting to know them more and more.
It’s a way for one person to distinguish themselves from the sea of other people in the world–this person is memorable because this person admires me. Why waste time on people who don’t like you, when you know someone does?
And gratitude? It is gratifying to hear someone thinks we’re clever–or pretty–or funny – or adventurous. It feels so good it leaves us wide open to manipulating flattery. We can be manipulated into suddenly thinking so very highly of someone who flatters us, and not admit that’s the reason why we suddenly think so well of them. (I can’t help but add a side-note: It’s almost more insidious when people flatter things we’re very proud of instead– “what a nice family you have,” “what wonderful people are your friends,” “your church is really amazing…”)
But when the admiration is genuine! It’s almost a relief to hear someone sincerely believes one of our strengths is actually a strength. And there comes the gratitude–and increased liking–and increased friendship–and maybe love…
Now, is this a sure-fire recipe for making friends, or falling in love? Sadly, no.
The terrible thing about letting someone know how much you like them is finding out your feelings don’t make them like you more. This is why we so rarely tell anyone how we feel! They don’t feel good that you like them, they feel pressured and afraid you expect something from them, and so they pull back. So despite trying to strengthen your relationship by sharing your admiration, you actually end up driving the person away.
Now, maybe this is not as common as we all believe. Maybe we truly all would have a thousand more healthy relationships if we just were honest about our admiration. In fact, we probably would, because people are far less likely to reject us than our negative brains want us to believe. However, it’s reality that people do react negatively. People you make an effort for do disappear. People you fall in love with don’t fall for you. The stronger your admiration for another person is, the more painful it is when it’s clearly not mutual.
So I’m not saying go out and tell everyone how you feel all the time. The risk is very great. The pain is nasty when everything goes wrong-side-up. You can’t predict the results of your honesty.
But honest admiration can result in something wonderful, even in this non-fictional world. So in the end it’s worth it to weigh the risks and open yourself up to this possibility.