Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jane Austen, Naked (Pride and Prejudice Part II)

descriptionEnglish comedienne Katy Brand is by no means alone in her view that Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice “is still the ultimate English sex symbol.” Last year, in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic fiction publisher in fact looked to profit from the latent sexual energy in Jane Austen’s novels by adulterating them with absurd sex scenes. And yet literary critic Julia Prewitt Brown in 1979 made a conflicting observation: “Although I think most readers [of Jane Austen] would agree that the heroes and heroines are attracted to each other … something in Austen’s valuation of sexuality still denies it an exclusive eminence.” (P&P, Norton ed., “Criticism,” p. 349)

Brown goes on to observe that women of many eras have had particular reasons to fear sex: pregnancy can lead to social and financial ruin, a bad marriage, or a life wholly subjugated to childbearing and childrearing; and males’ predatory appetites and violent frustrations make sex a precarious affair regardless of whether a pregnancy follows. Possibly, Darcy’s unpredatory Georgian manners make him a sex symbol to women because they make him safe without making him boring. His haughty judgments against Elizabeth’s family entail a reassuring distance from her at first, but also a discriminating, almost female, sense of sexual relations as a serious, procreative business undertaken with caution and concern for one’s descendants. His discrimination perhaps encodes a certain understanding of women and the dangers that sex poses to women. A player like Wickham can’t provide this sort of psychological shelter to a sensitive female.

Undoubtedly, Darcy also derives his sex appeal from Austen’s amazing ability to combine romantic idealism with naturalism. “Pride and Prejudice is almost shamelessly wish fulfilling,” as Austen scholar Claudia Johnson says (p. 368), and at the same time, as the 19th-century Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant put it, “Nothing but a mind of this subtle, delicate, speculative temper, could have set before us pictures which are at once so refined and trenchant, so softly feminine and polite, and so remorselessly true.” (p. 287) These two attributes of Austen’s writing produce particularly compelling fantasy.

It’s of course her realism that distinguishes her work from commonplace romance—and I want to suggest that her realism makes Darcy (and Elizabeth too) sexy not only by selling the fantasy but, more importantly, by depicting Darcy and Elizabeth undressing themselves, in an emotional sense.

Austen’s brother Henry says that Samuel Johnson was her favorite prose writer (p. 255), and she’s clearly a disciple of the Johnsonian view of Shakespeare as the pre-eminent psychological realist, the great “poet of nature” versus those of romance and fable. Like Shakespeare, Austen adopts as a central theme the human capacity for emotions to distort thought—in so many words, the capacity for “pride and prejudice.” Austen depicts her characters distorting thought by hiding certain emotional facts from others and from themselves, due to fear and shame. Her heroes and heroines fight against this repression in themselves and others.

Examples of dissemblance are everywhere: “At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her [Miss Bingley’s] own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his [Darcy’s], she gave a great yawn and said, ‘…I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading…’ ” (p. 37); “[Elizabeth] attracted [Mr. Darcy] more than he liked…. He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him….” (pp. 40-41); “[Elizabeth] sat down again, and tried to conceal by incessant employment the feelings which were divided between distress and diversion” (p. 71); “A day or two passed before Jane had courage to speak of her feelings to Elizabeth” (p. 89); “Jane’s feelings, though fervent, were little displayed” (p. 135); “[Elizabeth] entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation” (p. 136); “Elizabeth privately added, ‘And how much I shall have to conceal’ ” (p. 140); “ ‘When my eyes were opened to his real character’ ” (p. 177); “ ‘Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible’ ” (p. 177); “She was in no humour for conversation with any one but himself; and to him she had hardly courage to speak” (p. 215).

Equally ubiquitous in P&P are Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s rebellions against dissemblance: “ ‘Nothing is more deceitful,’ said Darcy, ‘than the appearance of humility. It is … sometimes an indirect boast’ ” (p. 33); “ ‘In vain have I [Darcy] struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’ ” (p. 123); again Darcy: “ ‘disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related’ ” (p. 125); and Elizabeth: “ ‘Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly…. I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away…. Till this moment, I never knew myself” (p. 135); Elizabeth: “I speak nothing but the truth” (p. 239).

The action of the plot in fact conducts Darcy and Elizabeth forward along the path of private rebellion against dissemblance, leading them gradually to shed their masks and expose the naked truth of themselves to themselves. Ultimately, their brave discoveries of their own emotional truths enable them to stand naked before each other with their raw and undisguised true feelings exposed to each other. This shedding of social masks and defenses resembles literal undressing, exposing as it does vulnerable, private, instinctual parts of Darcy and Elizabeth. We as readers become voyeuristic witnesses to this undressing, which is even more intimate, perhaps, than the shedding of mere clothes—for what we see at the end is not the generic form of “a poor, bare, forked animal,” as King Lear would have it, but two complete human beings revealed in all their complex individuality.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To Love Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice Part 1)

descriptionIn Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the pompous, foolish clergyman Mr. Collins proposes marriage twice to two different women in a matter of days. The reactions he gets chart two different possibilities that at one time hung before Jane Austen herself. Heroine Elizabeth Bennett turns him down and afterwards Austen makes one of many funny commentaries on Mr. Collins: “Elizabeth had hoped that his resentment might shorten his visit, but his plan did not appear in the least affected by it.” (Austen, P&P, Norton ed., p. 77) Days later, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte, who accepts out of loveless expediency: “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.” (p. 82) But Charlotte’s choice dismays Elizabeth. “[S]he never would have thought it possible that … [Charlotte] would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” (p. 84)

Austen scholar Deidre Lynch objects to idle speculation about Jane Austen’s source material (such as that in the 2007 Anne Hathaway movie Becoming Jane), but the Collins episode does seem to recapitulate a known event in Austen’s life. According to descendants of Jane’s brother James Austen, it happened on December 2 1802, at Manydown House not far from her hometown of Steventon: “on the evening of 2 December Harris Bigg-Wither had asked Jane to marry him and she had accepted, but then on the following morning had changed her mind and withdrawn her consent.” She and her sister summoned their brother James, who had to come away from his duties at the rectory to help his tearful sisters make an emergency escape to Bath by horse-drawn carriage. James Austen’s second wife, Mary Lloyd, said, “I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes…. All worldly advantages would have been to her—& she was of an age to know this quite well.” (P&P, Norton ed., “Backgrounds and Sources,” p. 258) In fact, the evening of Bigg-Wither’s proposal came exactly two weeks before Jane Austen’s 27th birthday, which perhaps explains why she assigns the age of 27 to Charlotte Lucas at the time of Charlotte’s desperate engagement to Mr. Collins.

Prior to the Bigg-Wither proposal, Austen had perhaps flirted (literally) with Elizabeth Bennett’s future; in the winter of 1796, a few weeks after Jane Austen turned 20, she wrote to her older sister Cassandra about an intelligent Irishman named Tom Lefroy. “He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you,” Austen wrote. Then a small cloud of fatalism or anxiety darkens the letter. Austen seems to bear up courageously underneath it as she narrates not only the truth of her affection but also her clear-eyed judgment that the relationship looks unlikely to proceed, “for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.” (p. 263) Whether or not Lefroy inspired Darcy, as the movie Becoming Jane supposes, it does seem that Lefroy follows Darcy’s pattern in that he seems to have allowed social pressures to interfere with a possible romance. A week later Austen wrote to Cassandra again of the doomed flirtation and added, “My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.” (p. 264) Unlike Mr. Darcy, Lefroy never came around. He married someone else and later became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Curiously, Austen’s niece Anna, daughter of her brother James, later married Lefroy’s cousin Benjamin.

Austen would ultimately share neither Elizabeth Bennett’s nor Charlotte Lucas’s conjugal fate. Rather, she lived out the possibility looming before Charlotte when Mr. Collins came along and relieved her and her brothers “from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid.” (p. 82) A decade after turning down Bigg-Wither (whose “charactonymic” name sounds less plausible than that of his fictional counterpart William Collins—especially given that Bigg-Wither was supposed to be physically large), Austen had resigned herself to the fate that her character Charlotte had explicitly avoided by a marriage of convenience. On November 6 1813, Austen, who was approaching the age of 38, wrote to Cassandra, “By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” (p. 267) Austen’s onetime neighbor Charlotte-Maria Middleton remembered, “She was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children but somewhat stiff & cold to strangers. She used to sit at Table at Dinner parties without uttering much….” (p. 260) She’d been put out to parlor, if not pasture, with her wine and her lonely fire.

Why, Professor Lynch wonders in a Slate article, “does Jane Austen’s spinsterhood bug us so much?” She notes that fanciful imaginings about Austen’s love life go back to the 1924 Rudyard Kipling poem, “Jane’s Marriage,” which envisions angels providing a well-suited husband to Austen in the afterlife. If concern for poor spinster Jane originates with Kipling—who in 1899, evidently without a trace of irony, exhorted Americans to “take up the White Man’s Burden”—is such sympathy for Jane Austen then corrupted by a stodgy, old chauvinism? (Incidentally, the meter of “The White Man’s Burden” is such that it can, and perhaps should, be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”)

It deserves mention that Kipling certainly meant his poem to honor Jane Austen’s achievements as a writer. I like to think that people wish she’d been properly adored most of all because they adore her. And they love her because, among other things, she understood love, and even sex, as only the finest poets do. As Kipling movingly stated:

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milson Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!