Friday, 14 September 2012

I am not Elizabeth Bennett

And neither are you.

My mother read me most of Jane Austen's novels when I was growing up. It was an evening ritual. She would read, and I would rug-hook. The stories soaked into me, and when I went to university, I was delighted when an Austen novel appeared in a course. I took courses specifically on 18th century novels, so as to read what Austen read. The first draft of Pride and Prejudice was, in fact, written in 1797.

My love for the work of Jane Austen took a bruise from a chap who had decided that in some mystical way I was Elizabeth Bennett, and he was Mr Darcy, and my mother was Mrs Bennett, and my father was Mr Bennett. There was very little evidence for his decision, but that's what he thought. He wrote me rather eighteenth century letters exhorting me to live up to the Elizabeth Bennett standard.

There was something rather flattering, when I was 22, to be assured that I was all Austenian perfection when "so many other girls are sluts." Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken a student loan and finished my degree abroad. But I did not.

The funny thing is that I now live in the ruins of Jane Austen's world. This is to say, I live in a 17th-18th century home once owned by a baronet. One of my professors discoursed on the "ha-ha" Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey might have fallen into. I can see our ha-ha (a trench that separates a cow pasture from one's manicured lawn) from the kitchen window.

Occasionally I even meet a baronet, although not often because there are not a lot of baronets in my social circle. One of life's little realities is that baronets tend to hang with other baronets, or at least with people as rich as, or richer than, they.

Austen was a realist who wrote with great wit and confidence about the society in which she lived. Her family was in--says wiki, and really this is the best way of putting it--"the lower ranks of the landed gentry."

It's always tricky being in the lower ranks of anything, if you ask me. You're perpetually worried about the easy slide down and longing for the tantalizing prizes just a rank up.

Not to be crass, but the family that owned this house was a rank or two up from Austen, and indeed I have checked with B.A. and by 1775 the heir was in the "Mr Darcy" class. A real-life Mrs Bennett would have indeed been pleased if her daughter could have married him, and a real-life Elizabeth Bennett, someone whose father was wealthy enough to run a country house with servants, would have felt comfortable here. (N.B. That heir's "Pemberley" is somewhere else; I write from one of the more minor properties.)

All this preamble is to impress upon you that I know what I am talking about when I tell you that I am not Elizabeth Bennett and neither are you.

And I think it important to say this because I have met both men and women who view life through the prism of Pride and Prejudice, and adjust their beliefs and behaviour accordingly. One woman misquoted to me one of Elizabeth Bennett's spirited remarks to Mr Darcy with such enthusiasm that I was seized by a fear that she had said it herself to some crush object or other.

Let's get this straight. We do not have much in common with Elizabeth Bennett. She did not have the vote. She could not get a job without losing her place in society (which means all of her friends). She automatically lost the right to own property when she married. She certainly did not go to university. She could not go for a morning jog. Her exercise was restricted to walking, dancing, horseback riding (sidesaddle) and, if the owner of the vehicle agreed, driving. She could not travel farther than the nearest town by herself.

If this sounds to you restful rather than restrictive, consider that if she had not married, upon her father's death Elizabeth would have had to become a governess or schoolteacher--from lady to upper servant or employee in one fell swoop. It is hard to express in contemporary terms how humiliating this would have been. Jane Eyre did not have Elizabeth's upbringing, and represents the horror of the third option: being completely dependent on wealthier relations.

Being female was a serious, serious handicap in 1800, and all that kept a woman from perpetual risk of sexual exploitation was her rank in the class system and the goodwill of the men around her.

(If you think the lovely manners the men of Austen's novels show the women were universal in Austen's day, you can think again. Working women were propositioned day and night, and prostitution was rife. Song-sellers stood in the city streets singing lewd songs. There were city guides to brothels. It was not considered a horrific scandal if a man of Austen's class had a child out of wedlock, as long as he paid something towards his/her support. The opposite, of course, was true of women of Austen's class. Dear heaven. And the politeness shown by "gentlemen" to "ladies" was as much about the ladies' gentlemen relations as about the ladies themselves.)

So when Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy confront each other, and when Elizabeth Bennett sends Mr Darcy packing, we have a situation in which an almost powerless person stands up to an almost omnipotent person and says, "Despite the vast disadvantages life has handed me, I know I am a human being worthy of your respect."

The social inequalities between the daughter of a rich man and a rich man have since been swept away. Look around and take note. It is true that some men still take sexual advantage of women and some are more ready to sexually insult women they think socially "beneath" them than of women they perceive to be "above" them. However, men simply do not have the social privileges over women they had in 1800.

I once witnessed a young Austen fan being coquettishly rude to a younger man. It was not pretty, and I suspect that she had picked up this technique from the works of Miss J.A.

To put the situation in context, the Austen fan had a university education, a career and a mortgage. The young man was still in university and, I'm guessing, dependent on his parents for food, etc. Physically he had the advantage as he could have, had he chosen, beaten her to death with a hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice. But, otherwise, no.

And that is what Austen fans, and other fans of "spirited heroines" have got to get into their heads. Elizabeth Bennett cannot be our guide to life because she was not our equal. She was not our equal because she was not, in law, men's equal. She lived under social and legal restrictions few of us know anything about. And Mr Darcy had powers and privileges beyond most modern men's wildest fantasies.

Thus, if at parties we sound like spirited Elizabeth Bennetts, trying to get ordinary 21st century men to acknowledge an equality that they already know we possess, then we are only going to look and sound silly and rude. This will be especially true if we are richer and more glamorously employed than they.

The war for equality under the law and in polite society has been won. What we need now is a mop-up action against sexual assault, sexist rudeness and crudeness. And Elizabeth cannot be a guide to this either, for the crumb her society tossed her, as the daughter of landed gentry, was never having to deal with this stuff.


Sarah said...

THANK YOU for writing this. I enjoyed Emma, (mainly because I relate to her character) but beyond that, I never understood why men and women alike sought to try to apply Victorian sensibilities to the modern day.

It really drives me a little mad.

I'd never want to be like Elizabeth Bennett, I'd never want to marry anyone like Mr. Darcy, and I'd never want to live in Victorian England. Ever. And I don't see how anyone else who knows anything about how that time actually WAS, and that it wasn't all Colin Firth walking toward you out of the mist.

TGWWS said...

The thing that some modern ladies overlook about Elizabeth is (1) she is not trying to impress Mr. Darcy, flirt with him, or extend common courtesy to him. (She's shocked when he proposes.) She's written him off as a jerk, and treated him accordingly. It's a weird quirk in his circumstances and personality that leads to him reacting by falling in love with her. Also, (2) Elizabeth does not treat every man she knows this way. When she does, it's because they (like Mr. Collins or Wickham unveiled) have richly deserved it. And again, she's not trying to win their hearts.

I think it's worth noting that, Elizabeth excepted, Austen's spunkier heroines (Marianne, Emma) end up married to MUCH older--and therefore more confident?--men. Meanwhile, three of her heroines (Catherine, Fanny, and Anne) are pretty unremittingly kind to and impressed by their men. Not chasing them, but clearly liking and respecting them ... and that has a not-unexpected effect, as Austen notes explicitly in Catherine's case.

Lydia Cubbedge said...

I love Austen's stuff. That being said, I also have a degree in English and it drives me crazy when girls use a novel, any novel, as a guide to life. You simply can't use regency manners or social structures as a template for 21st century life. Not that her work doesn't have a great deal of truth abounding in it-people read it because of that. Her novels weren't, by regency standards, safe. Safe novels aren't read 200 years later. They told stories of fairly ordinary girls, having ordinary lives and the moral and social and psychological upheaval that women experienced in a fairly messed up society. Sigh. I actually think that impressionable teens of a romantic disposition shouldn't read her novels without proper guidance. You need a good head on your shoulders and a sense of humor to get the point.

Anonymous said...

Those would be Georgian sensibilities.
Mrs. Bennett

MaryJane said...

I love Jane Austen, and particularly Elizabeth Bennet, but this post serves as a delightful reality check. Novels are just that: novels, not real life.

Seraphic said...

Aged P, if that is you claiming to be Mrs Bennet, you're not allowed to change blog names! :-D

Seraphic said...

Victoria was crowned in 1837 and died in 1901. Women's legal status improved very much during her reign, as a matter of fact. And society became a little more religious and a rather less tolerant of men propositioning women left and right. Many call the age "hypocritical", but hypocrisy is the respect vice pays to virtue, after all!

MichelleMarie said...

Interesting post! I have never thought of Elizabeth Bennett this way at all - as a severely disadvantaged party. I also never thought about Elizabeth's remarks as not being flirtatious - the movies almost make them seem so. I remember watching the BBC version with a roommate who basically thought entire scenes of their verbal repartee were basically foreplay calculated by E.B. But yes, I definitely agree with you - our better station in life requires we exercise more graciousness. It's just the way it is.

Even though we have made huge strides in equality from Elizabeth's time, I do still feel the disadvantaged party (relationally speaking) when I glumly realize that very few guys want to stick around a girl who won't put out after a couple of dates. So in a way, "seraphic" singles do still have some respect and integrity to defend (we are powerless to make this guy stay if he can just go out and find a half-decent girl who will sleep with him: so essentially we are kind of the powerless party). Does defending our integrity require rudeness though??

Nah. I don't have the heart anymore.

amlovesmusic said...

"Even though we have made huge strides in equality from Elizabeth's time, I do still feel the disadvantaged party (relationally speaking) when I glumly realize that very few guys want to stick around a girl who won't put out after a couple of dates."

AGREE'D. I feel the same way. It is so disheartening. I know a lot of guys who are great men overall, except for one small yet big detail - they think that sex is a normal part of a relationship.

And Seraphic, every time you talk about your house, I can't help but be a little bit wistful. I just wonder what it is like living in a house that has been around for 300 years. I have such a great love for all things that can be placed on a historic register of some sort. Especially houses. I know that they come with a lot of baggage in terms of poor insulation, plumbing, electricity, etc....but there is so much beauty in old architecture that just isn't around today. Will you ever share pictures of your house here?

american (not) in deutschland said...


I enjoy Austen books every so often (especially Emma, which seems like the funniest), but I hate the whole culture that wants to make them swoony chick lit (as opposed to satire/morality plays) or sees them as expressing some kind of social ideal. "Gentlemen and ladies" indeed.

Seraphic said...

It is great fun to come home to a house like this, I have to admit. I don't get to hang out in the grand floors however, as they are preserved as they are For the Nation. We live in an attic flat. It used to be servants' and children's quarters, and it is a good thing we are both so short.

I probably will show photos one day, for I don't think B.A.'s boss would mind the extra publicity for potential tourists.

The problem with those sex-seeking boys is that they are not looking for wives. They are looking for mistresses that they might marry later, if the thrill is still there. You're on two different pages. When they disappear because you won't put out, then you know you were on two different pages. I hope this is some consolation. Meanwhile, good for you for not putting out. I know nobody gives you a medal for that, but why not? Maybe we should start handing out medals to girls who refuse to put out. Only you'd have to hide them, because wearing them would only attract the weasels who "like a challenge."

Domestic Diva said...

Love this post. And would love, love, LOVE pix of the Historical House!

Charming Disarray said...

I love this topic, as you know. I wish people would start taking Jane Austen on her own terms again...who, it seems to me, was always laughing through her cynicism and a certain amount of bitterness. And people seem to forget the prejudice part of P&P. Elizabeth's rudeness towards Darcy and her assumptions about him were something that were later shown to be a fault. The ironic twist is that if she had been polite to him, he probably would have been totally bored with her.

Interesting point about equality. Sometimes I think sarcasm and teasing in social settings are overrated. It's nice to just talk to somebody, especially of the opposite sex, without having to field a bunch of faux insults. I'm sure guys get tired of that kind of thing, too.

Shell said...

Oh! This is a refreshing perspective. Having said that, I just finished 'Finding Mr Darcy' by Amanda Hooton - which was similarly refreshing (and laugh out loud funny) and reminded readers not to compromise by accepting Mr Collins whilst Mr Darcy is just pages away.