Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sort of getting Jane Austen

I never got Jane Austen. People I respect rave, and dare I say fantasize, about her novels, but I have never been able to get through them without almost screaming from boredom. It seems the people who love her are in it for the social rituals--the subtle gestures, the blushing approach by the punch bowl. How restrained people were in her time! How nice it must have been to have those social forms like balls and visiting cards to adhere to--especially because dating is such a morass now. None of that ever appealed to me. Also supposedly she is a razor-sharp satirist, but I never saw that either. Only people yacking, accidentally offending each other, making up in some fashion, getting married.

But. I have to teach Pride and Prejudice for my class on imitating life. Austen is the great builder of characters; everybody says so. So I am tackling the book again, and for the first time I really do see the satire, which is startlingly acid. There is outright loathing for Mrs. Bennet and for any kind of silliness or pretension in women. I gather Austen believed women did not have to be defined by mental frippery, even in her relatively unliberated time, so that's a good thing. But is hers a feminist perspective? Men seem to get off easier, at least in the beginning. Elizabeth's ability to win Darcy's admiration, as well as her alliance with her father against her mother, are key selling points for her character early on. Perhaps the idea is to reassure women that they need not be foolish in order to win husbands--but there's no suggestion they can make it in the world without men.

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