Jane Austen & the bad girls
Midsummer | Leonie AdamsIt's not midsummer anymore and I'm already beginning to see the traces of autumn in the trees, unfortunately, which is why the last line, begging time to move slowly, was in mind today. And also because I'm moving in a week and there still seems so much to do!
This starbreak is celestial air
Just silver; earthlight, dying amber.
Underneath an arch of pallor
Summer keeps her brightened chamber.
Bright beauty of the risen dust
And deep flood-mark of beauty pressed
Up from earth in lovely flower,
High against my lonely breast;
Only before the waters fall
Is Paradise shore for gaining now.
The grasses drink the berry-bright dew;
The small fruits jewel all the bough.
Heartbreaking summer beyond taste,
Ripeness and frost are soon to know;
But might such color hold the west,
And time, and time, be honey-slow!
I've packed up most of my books (though I made the grave error of thinking I could do without Jane Austen and Harry Potter and other comfy favourites during this stressful time and had already boxed them up! Luckily I'd labeled the boxes when I needed to raid them... a move is never a good time to try Anna Karenina for a little light reading!) and today got about half (or a third, he has a real mountain of them, more than me) of my husband's books packed up too. My husband can't help with the move much at all, since he's got an open wound in his stomach that we're hoping will heal up soon or the doctor thinks he may need a skin graft... and I have an old foot injury that's been hurting again. So I am panicking a bit, although hopefully everything goes smoothly.
I watched the Pride & Prejudice mini-series today and that was soothing while I packed. I'd been telling myself that Jane Austen is just moralizing wish-fulfillment for passive good girls (sanitized Regency-era Disney fairy tales) and that I ought to read other, more modern things, so last night I tried a few of Chuck Klosterman's 'low culture' essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and while some of them were insightful -- he writes about the concept of 'fake love,' where people get their ideas and expectations of love from movies and music and so are never satisfied when the real thing comes around -- overall they were too cynical and just meaningless and left me in a grumpy mood. But sometimes, when the opening lines of Persuasion make you cheer up after other books just make you feel worse, then Jane Austen it is.
I began to think today that some of Austen's scheming bad girls actually end up doing ok, especially the manipulative Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility who marries more money than the saintly Elinor in the end! Austen supposedly offers the reader two choices: Marianne's doomed wild passion or Elinor's dutiful, slightly dull common-sense. Both women marry respectable good men who can provide for them in the end, even if they too are a bit dull (although interestingly Marianne's censured romantic and unconventional behaviour gets her the richer husband than her sister's who always does the right thing and loses his inheritance over it). But there is a third marriage at the end of the book, a third young woman who's been scheming for a husband and takes action to look after herself, although she's poorer and less accomplished than either of the Dashwood girls. As a rector's daughter Austen of course couldn't officially condone such behaviour, but I'm sure she was highly amused while creating such outrageous strong-willed women like Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Elton, Isabella Thorpe, and Lucy Steele, who won't take no for an answer!
Come to think of it, Jane Austen herself had to be rebellious enough to write and to believe in her writing enough to persevere to get it published and to reject a comfortable but loveless marriage. She valued her self-actualizing independent CAREER! She sought money for her work, something most respectable women (certainly not middle-class clergymen's daughters hidden away in the country, famous women writers before her like Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney had exciting public lives, Behn as a government spy who also wrote a novel exposing slavery and Burney as a member of George III's court and a friend of many famous writers, among other things!) didn't do then. Even the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire dabbled in writing, but never pursued it single-mindedly as its own end. Most women with a talent in the arts only saw it as a hobby, a pretty little accomplishment to boost them up on the marriage market. (Austen makes fun of Mrs. Elton for saying she'll give up music now that she's married, now that its use is fulfilled.) She must have felt that entertaining herself and other women with her stories wasn't just a cutesy grab a husband side-show, it had worth and meaning and serious artistic merit. Even if she didn't have any famous male writers encouraging her or any other writer friends at all. She put value in what she accomplished with her brains, she wasn't willing to be an unpaid slave wife and mother, forever pregnant like her own mother or diddling about with embroidery like empty-headed Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park. Even while living with her family who thought one of her brothers should be the famous writer. And her early teenaged writings are quite saucy and unconventional, even including an anti-heroine mother in Lady Susan... which I might have to read now!
Growing up with a mother who is obsessed with studying the bible, I inadvertently learned to read literature very closely, to read between the lines, to consider context, time period and the language it was first written in. I also inadvertently learned to study what I read for a useful moral lesson, a guide on how to live my life. I tend to pass judgment on books based on whether or not I approved of the ideas they seemed to promote, I find it hard to read something just to enjoy the story, language and characters alone. If a book is too dark (even if, my husband the horror fan points out, it also has its own dark morality), I tend to feel quite uncomfortable.
So for a long time, even since leaving chrisitianity, I have seen Jane Austen as my moral compass through life, reading her closely for instructions on how to be a good person and how to have good relationships with others. She's especially good at the friendships between women, sisters, mothers and daughters, older women who mentor younger ones (or try to), friends, frenemies... there's often an unequal balance, with one woman trying to exploit her superiority over the other. This fascinated me because I've often experienced it in my own life, starting with my mother and in the past moving on to some of my friendships. I've looked to Jane Austen to show the balance of how to mature in order to be a better friend, but also the signs to look for in who is a good friend to confide in.
That said, I don't always want to be the good girl who only reads Jane Austen! I want to read a broader range of women and men to learn other perspectives about love and sex and relationships and life. Occasionally I want to feel liberated and read about bad girls who don't do everything right and yet are still ok in the end. As mentioned in my last post, Colette is my newest discovery who is great at this. But there have to be more women writing about bad girls (who don't die off or get punished either!) or just independent girls who don't stay home and wait around for life to happen to them! Or women in healthy relationships who also manage to have an independent strong sense of self?? I love reading about love and romance and all that (I am married after all, I don't demand that women must always shun men and go off on their own to be fully self-actualized), but I also need to know that it's ok to not be perfect all the time. I have to know that my needs are important too, even if my husband is having three surgeries this summer. I can't always live by the Jane Austen rules (I'm just not self-sacrificing Elinor Dashwood hiding my feelings to hold my family together!) -- unless they are the Jane Austen writing rules of having faith in my words, my voice, my ideas, my sense of humour, my stories, even if they're unconventional -- I am my own person with my own story to live and my own stories to write.
So, recommendations for books about (non-self-destructive) bad girls? I just started thinking about Gone With the Wind's indomitable Scarlett O'Hara and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I've heard is a great feminist teen book, and there's Vanity Fair too with notorious social climber Becky Sharp. And funny girls too, why is it girls aren't supposed to be as funny as boys? I certainly enjoy being funny and doing more than just listening to men tell jokes. Jane Austen embraced her sense of humour instead of hiding it and used it very pointedly. (I'm beginning to remember a previous rant about why aren't there any books with adventurous girls too!) Perhaps I'll be back at the library soon, even though I once had the silly idea of not reading much while I was busy moving... at any rate, getting a new library card in our new city will be a top priority!