Saturday, June 30, 2007

newsflash: world lacks imagination

All over the world, women are turning into Jane Austen freaks for the pleasure of escapism, Empire waistlines, and impossibly devoted and eminently suitable fantasies. I mean, what? Do most women really go no further than a Pavlovian reflex at catching a glimpse of a nice man when they read Austen? Really. I'm not trying to devolve that into a 'feminists v/s asshats' question. If you're going to blame Colin Firth and aggressive paperback marketing for the rash of Darcy-centric paraphernalia then, uh, shouldn't you be blaming market forces, and not literate adult women, for repurposing Austen into Regency romance?

I fell into the trap of expecting Austen to be a sympathetic romantic when I first read her, which is probably why I refused to count myself as one among her legion of fans in my early teens. It was a little disturbing to re-read Pride & Prejudice sometime after I hit voting-age and find that every word of it rang hilariously, scathingly, frighteningly true - if you ignored the darkly frowning sexpot that comes up to untie the Gordian knot for our heroine, rescuing her from almost-certain poverty and social ostracism that life as a single woman might have reduced her to.

Reading this thread at Pandagon, in response to Traister's rather single-note article, was quite fascinating. Some people blogged in with very cogent objections to the classist Austen worldview. There's no denying that, in taking the comic tone, Austen limits herself to operating within the acceptable spheres of feminine respectability, both for herself and her protagonists. I hardly think this discredits her powers of imagination. The horror of having Elizabeth die as a penniless spinster-governess, uncared for and unloved by some tiresome family of rich brats, must have loomed a little too close for Austen's comfort to have her thrash it out in a book. There are limits to everyone's ability to laugh in the face of dread.

But surely Austen isn't yet so single-purpose that women now seek nothing in her books apart from the comfort of a mannered, self-conscious society and hunks in top hats. Or has the world changed all that much over in its individualistic, liberated corners that the real fears of poverty and social disapproval don't haunt the lives of the novel-reading class of women any more? I can't believe that. Degrees of female freedom may vary, but surely no society is quite so liberated and equal opportunity that reading P+P at a certain age isn't discomfiting for a single woman in possession of a modicum of self-awareness? And not just in a touching, hilarious, 'oh god, I know that, that's my family, and my sister, and my neighbours' sort of way. I think that's what Bridget Jones was supposed to highlight, in the way Bridget obsessed over dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by Alsatians. But Bridget Jones' Diary was, at its heart, a well-meaning, happy little fable of the underdog winning the day, while P+P has a hard, immovable core of unpleasantness that even the feather-light epilogue [house! servants! non-embarassing connections!] need not dislodge, depending on what time of the night you're reading.

And as with most institutionalised suffering, it just seems so pointless. Chattering relatives. Disheartened parents. Suspicious co-workers. Overly fresh male acquaintances. Complete lack of social mobility. Institutional disapproval. All of which are much harder than a sheltered, genteel existence can teach you to cope with. And for what?

I don't like Darcy. He's an almighty cop-out. But he has his uses, and we all recognize that. No one, least of all a reader with the slightest respect for comedy, can blame literature for trying to bring a modicum of order to life.

Sheesh. And they say nice guys have a job of it.

1 comment:

  1. Do we really have to indulge in such postmodern de-constructions of an otherwise if I daresay beautiful story!