Friday, 29 August 2014

What I've been reading: Pride and Prejudice

Okay, okay. This isn't the only thing I've been reading this week. It's just the only thing I've finished because it's the only thing I've been reading with any consistency.

Look, I'd been having a pretty rough week - it's the school summer holidays, we've had lots of visitors and done lots of visiting and I am an introvert with a personal space bubble of about fifteen feet. I'm worn out. I needed a comfort read, something fun, something familiar. So it was a Pride and Prejudice situation.

I have actually turned into my mother.

While it may seem strange that, with all my stated love for the darkness, for blood and thunder, I should be an Austen fan, you have not touched upon some squishy internal emotional wreck here. Let me make one thing dazzlingly clear to those who are not acquainted with dear Jane; this is as far as it is possible to get from mush.

Just as we disgrace Dumas by assuming he wrote for children, so we mutilate Austen by assuming what she created were romances at their worst - dull farragos of misunderstandings that would be resolved if people treated each other like human beings, sentimental works that end in inevitable marriages. Austen's worldview is bleak, dark, realist. Dare I even say it, they are proto-feminist novels.

Yes, yes, I know, we do not see Lizzy Bennet rolling up her sleeves and becoming a surgeon, nor Lydia eloping with Wickham because women should have freedom of sexual choice as well you know. Austen did not write speculatively; if she could not offer her heroines the hammer with which to smash the patriarchy, she at least gave them the clearness of sight to recognise it and a survival kit of workarounds to prevent it from crushing them.

One of the major criticisms of Austen is her desperate focus on marriage, but consider: a character like Elizabeth Bennet has no employment prospects. She could become a governess, work which paid - on average - a little more than farm labouring but which required a full abandonment of any social prospect. The family for whom she worked would view her as a subordinate, the servants would see her as an object of scorn and an outsider. Isolated for her working life, when she became 'too old' - at no more than 40 - she would be cut adrift on what little savings she had managed to amass.

If she could not get an appointment (likely, considering her relative lack of accomplishments) her income - after her father's death would be approximately £40. In 2008's terms that is roughly £1,400 a year before rent. Not to romanticise the position of the working classes in this time, but a labourer with a family could expect some income from his spouse and older children - an unmarried woman could not.

This is not to say that there would have been no way out. There were, of course, remarkable women who flew in the face of such social expectations (Austen herself was one of them, supplementing her family's income by writing) but she was very keen to make her heroines unremarkable. Too many of her contemporaries wrote paragons; she focused upon ordinary gentlewomen of no particular education, fortune or genius.

And yet, these unremarkable women prevail, and, as they do so, she show just how messed up is the system against which they must contend. The wonderful thing about Austen is that she shows us how the system is broken still.

Take, for example, Mr Collins; pompous, creepy, ugly and stupid. He makes Lizzy an offer (as the parlance goes), so, early in the novel, our heroine receives a proposal from a man she finds repulsive. So far, so romance. Yet this overlooks the tacit knowledge of Austen's audience - just as they would know how straitened the Bennets' prospects were, they would also know that 'marriage' is often a shorthand for 'sex'. And, boy, does Mr Collins employ that shorthand here. Among his first reasons for wanting to get hitched is to set a good example to his parishioners - doubtless reminding everyone that the traditional Anglican marriage service includes a bit on marriage being a way of allowing people to experience the pleasures of the flesh.

So, having not so much proposed to as propositioned her, Mr Collins received a refusal. And, in a move familiar to any woman who has received street or online harrassment anywhere, he refuses to accept this rejection as valid. Women, he claims, often say no at first. Of course, they don't really mean it, and with the correct inducements (another proposal, the advice from her parents) she will say yes at a later date. When Lizzy persists in her refusal, because, he turns nasty. In the most verbosely mannerly, 19th Century way he tells her that her market value as a sexual commodity is not particularly high, and she is unlikely to get other offers. Modernised, what he says is no different from the pick-up artists who go from a "Hey, sexy" to, "Fat, ugly slag!" when you tell them to stuff it.

And Lizzy is supposed to accept this. This - according to the mores of Lizzy's time - is a good match. This is security and relative autonomy and the assurance that she will continue to live in the style and class to which she is accustomed. To marry Mr Collins is to have a respectable clergyman's income for some years, and then the equivalent of £70k a year after Mr Bennet's death. She is not being offered mere financial security, but wealth.

I know, tiny violin. But this choice, this awful choice between lifelong prostitution to a man who is repelent to her in every way and poverty, shows that Elizabeth Bennet is in a damned good social position. She has privilege and opportunity in spades. She has intelligence, family, social standing. Her choices are far wider than that of many of the women around her. This option - which I defy anyone reading this not refuse - is one which Charlotte Lucas - older, less attractive, more pragmatic - grabs with both hands.That is the model, the society, the system in which Austen is working.

But she herself refuses it. Our author is clear; Lizzy should not be overwhelmed with gratitude for the attention of Mr Collins, nor for proposal of Mr Darcy (bringing an income of about 340k) - despite their dreadfully limited possibilities, Austen is adamant: her women are not commodities. Yes, they are circumscribed by money - Elizabeth give up her partiality to Wickham as she their joint income would be insufficient to raise a family - but they never sell themselves. 

Yet, Austen is not painting a utopia. She is showing a world that systematically breaks women down, beats them, constrains them. That she could have written such tales is clear from the palpable misery that surrounds so many of her characters. Would her characters welcome a world where they could love where they liked earn their own living without shame? Almost certainly. But they cannot have that, so they play upon what terms they can, and they win.

 All of Austen's heroines (with the possible exception of Marriane) marry for affection first, and have material comfort anyway. That happiness of that kind can be snatched in the face of such odds is the miracle of Austen's work. She saw the probable outcome of her characters lives and she refused it. Without leaving the stark bounds of realism, she showed that joy was possible, and love, and sexual fulfilment, despite every attempt of the world to destroy those things.

This is not a reconciliation with a broken system, this is a cry of hope. It is an acknowledgement that women are strong, that whatever else is taken from us, we can snatch a little handful of happiness. That with honesty and integrity and just a little bit of pushyness, it can work out. As a feminist model for the rebuilding of a utopia, it isn't much. But as an evisceration of the world's foibles and a, "hang on in there", it's wonderful.

Every time I read Austen, I am breathing relief that I was born in the late 20th century, not the early 19th. Every time I see the messed up conversations we are having about gender, finance, sex and relationships, it is a comfort, a promise, a ray of light. It is a cause for thanks, and for rejoicing.

 All figures taken from: and

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