Jane Austen, One Day and What Makes a Love Story Epic

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Jane Austen, One Day and What Makes a Love Story Epic

Towards the end of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (which at the time of publication was her best-selling book,) the story’s decades-spanning love between Edmund and Fanny concludes with a peculiar aside. She starts with a direct address to the reader, wry in its self-awareness: “I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.”

Such an epic, winding story to conclude in this brief report is unexpected—a strangely unsentimental approach for a romantic drama. But this is not proof of a rushed conclusion (or not just proof of a rushed conclusion) it is indicative of Austen’s intimate understanding of relational rhythms. The eventual confirmation of the characters’ love is a barely acknowledged event, less important than the moments leading up to it, making them inevitable. It is an idea shared by David Nicholls in his best-selling One Day, newly and faithfully adapted as a Netflix miniseries.

Following the story of Dexter and Emma, two friends whose (almost-) hook up on the last day of university unfolds into a lifelong friendship, One Day lives in the space between the two’s magnetic draw, floating on their dramatic ebb and flow. Yet the first, stumbling steps to their eventual relationship take place in the space between chapters, implied in the text but never explicitly set in writing. The reader is left to frame that event, assembling it through the scraps and fragments Dex and Em relay in conversation. Like Austen did almost 200 years before, Nicholls entreats “everybody to believe” that their reunion plays out as it should, when it should, away from prying eyes.

Every version of the epic love story is burdened by a serious reputation, but really the depth and clarity of Austen’s most famous romances are born from her funny observations of the world. Nineteenth-century England, with its limited transport options, forces people to have a deeper relationship with their space, and as such Austen’s characters move around and across immovable landmarks. Her work is locked into a narrow corner of England, action circling the suburbs of Bath with each dinner table conversation, leveled by the totality of English cynicism. True intention can only be expressed in the journey through place to find one another, the rugged country paths from house to house conceal chapters of her most famous couple’s early, undeclared love. As Austen explained in Sense and Sensibility, “The high downs which invited them from almost every window of the cottage to seek the exquisite enjoyment of air on their summits…” It is this profound sense of potential that stretches the tale’s scope beyond its limited geographical shape, imagining a terrain bathed in promise.

Great romantic dramas require an unambiguous understanding of place, in tune with a space’s rhythms, and adjusting the story accordingly. One Day expresses a more contemporary relationship to location, treating each chapter as a new point, both in their map and in their timeline. They traverse countries—from Scotland to England to Italy to France—their insecurities and desires tangled in the web of locations they have lived in, buried beneath well-traveled layers. The gulf between them repeatedly widening and shrinking, expressed in the close inescapability of Emma’s apartment and classroom and the echoing openness of Dexter’s TV sets and mansions. Like classic Greek odysseys, the world they occupy constricts around them, reflective of the next challenge they must overcome in this leg of the expedition. 

In having such a non-pressured relationship to time (spanning 20 years), Nicholls sees Emma and Dexter grow into their own people, molding themselves into shapes that slot together. Authors can only achieve this if their stories aren’t restricted by the form. Time offers characters a chance to sit amongst the uncomfortable, concrete ruins of actions and their consequences, carving themselves a new place in the world. After an explosive fight, followed by years of not talking, the two reunite at an old friend’s wedding, filling their gap apart with the memories of missing one another. “When I didn’t see you, I thought about you every day,” Emma explains to him, “I mean EVERY DAY in some way or another.” Nicholls follows this with the two falling together, an unexpected kiss held in a moment of “glorious confusion”; precarity turning to longevity.

Time is the only force strong enough to bind people together indefinitely—a slow refashioning of the soul. This is the kind of development that Austen cultivated. In her worlds, age and connection are passed back and forth in a romantic exchange, that eventually settles into a sustainable form. When Elinor and Edward reunite at the end of Sense and Sensibility years after their first encounter, the narrator pulls back to frame their love: “for though a very few hours spent in the hard labor of incessant talking will dispatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different.” In this observation of two individuals, she covertly summarises what makes her stories so endurable and entrancing. Romances let the foregone conclusion of lovers’ happiness propel the reader forward while wrapping them in the intrigue of unknown circumstances. The success of the romance is dependent on a drawn-out balance between knowing and learning, pulling its observers ever closer.

In 2024, 15 years on from its release, One Day has sold a genre-defining 5 million copies. When something is as readily embraced as this book, its success is at first easily dismissible, perhaps only proof of a hungry and complacent culture. But Nicholl’s crafted something real and lasting, like Austen’s most famous books it is grand in chronological scope and delicate in its thoughtful embrace of love’s shape-shifting nature. 

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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