Saturday, September 15, 2007

Happily Ever After

Interestingly, in light of what I wrote below about the realities inside famous novels (and plays) I came across an essay by Doris Lessing about Jane Austen. In it she questioned whether there really could have been the happy ending:

"And now here comes my personal caveat, but I am not the only one to think Darcy would not marry Elizabeth. Aristocrats do not marry poor middle-class girls much encumbered with disagreeable relatives. Yes, you believe it for the space and time of the tale, and that is all that is needed...Very beautiful girls, from nowhere, marrying lords in their castles? It all appeals to our nursery memories."

It's a fascinating little essay in a book of her random essays on a huge variety of topics. I picked it up as a bargain book from B&N. Rather like reading a blog.

One thing that she pinpoints is the absurd way Austen is sometimes taught--by people who don't know the time period to people who cannot imagine it. I remember at one point in my college career virtually screaming at my classmates because they couldn't grasp the import of a young woman being alone with a man who was not a relation. They kept saying that it wasn't that big a deal and I knew that it was. They were probably all children of Boomers. My parents came from a generation before that and my grandmother was born in 1898. In her youth it would still have been shocking for a woman to spend time alone with a man with whom she was not engaged. The 20's wiped much of that away, but even then the revolution would have been more in the cities and not the rural areas--the provincial.

Lessing, who grew up on a farm in the bush of Africa, also describes the fact that travel was so difficult. A distance of a few miles was like traveling to another country and required as much preparation.

But what I really found fascinating was her description of the radical quality of Elizabeth Bennet as a heroine--a heroine who chose her own path despite the pressures around her. She pointed out that it would have been remarkable to the readers of the day.

When I was in college deconstructionism was all the rage in literary criticism--finding the hidden meanings of these stories--homoeroticism or homophobia, internal misogyny, etc. I wrote a final essentially saying that deconstructionism might tell future readers a great deal about our times, but added not one whit to the actual knowledge of Austen, her time, or her writing. I got a B+ and pages of indecipherable notes from my professor. Really. I never figured out what he wrote. I've always wished I'd asked.

My husband (who doesn't like Austen because of being force fed her in school) and I have had long discussions on what would be more radical--to come from 1700 to 1800, 1800 to 1900 or 1900 to 2000. Despite the age of reason and the industrial revolution I've always argued for 1900 to 2000. The minute of life, the day-to-day didn't change much as the ideas changed--travel was still long and hard, you still went to bathroom outside or in equally unpleasant conditions, everyone had flees. But perhaps I have undervalued the power of pure ideas. I still think the shock from 1900-2000 would be greater, the noise, the speed, but the ideas--of women as more than property, of class change, etc. Those would have been pretty shocking too.

No comments: