Tag Archives: “austen fans keep prudery alive”

Bitching about Austen

I might have a season of this, so prepare yourselves.

I’ve already had one – “Death Comes to Pemberley” and links to “Going Off Austen” and I wrote elsewhere “Lydia and Wickham – Pride and Prejudice’s Naughtiest Couple”.

Why am I bitching again? Why didn’t I take Austen off my shelf (lord knows I need the space) 4 years ago and let Janey fans enjoy her?

Having my Kate Winslet season (blog posts on here previously) led me to watch the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, which I was reluctant to do; as I’ve said, I’ve not got on really with Austen’s other 5 novels and I’m fed up with polite period adaptations. But I wanted to see Kate’s performance and her career progression. And for a while, I liked the film; and though it was slower to get into, I read the novel with some pleasure.

It was easy to see why the woman that gave us Ophelia and Rose in Titanic could play Marianne Dashwood – passionate, impetuous, heart broken, (near) dying. I did various “Which Austen character are you” quizzes, and received varying answers, but Marianne appeared more than once. And I wasn’t unhappy with that, because Marianne has spirit, she’s genuine, she doesn’t care for those stupid social rules that beset Austen, she’s not materialistic, she speaks and knows her heart.

As for her supposed faults — it was my irritation with that question that got me the result of Lady Catherine De Burgh in one quiz (I’m sort of amused by that and a bit secretly proud). Emma Thompson in her actor/writer’s commentary of the S&S DVD often points out Marianne’s selfishness and rudeness: she rises unbidden at the table of her hosts and asks to play the piano; she boldly hops into a barouche with her boyfriend in public; she speaks or won’t speak ‘out of turn’ (think how dreadful that phrase is!) and she even complains about her sister’s cold feet in their shared bed. And she writes late night letters to her love who’s just publicly and inexplicable spurned her.

This is really what worries me about Austen. I nearly called this piece

Austen fans keep prudery alive

because I’m more disturbed that modern people are getting this, and sticking up for it! The introduction to the Pitkin guide to Austen, written by a man, says that Austen gives us a moral standard (and lets men understand women!!). An article high on the search engine results I won’t name, but that I did comment on, reviews this film with a paragraph on “Bad Content” which includes low necklines and unmarried mothers. The same magazine issue that my truncated guest essay was published in (Jane Austen’s Regency World, Nov 2010) had an article about sex appeal in Austen. It was illustrated with louche cartoons lampooning contemporary royalty, but the text incongruously is about the fact we don’t understand “seriousness” of the “moral crime” of single motherhood today (GOOD!) and full of words like “condemn” “immoral” “vulgar flirt” and “lower impulses” about anyone whose sexuality is more open.

Do you want us to put the corset back on?!

Many of Kate Winslet’s films have been about women who literally and metaphorically take off the corset, but S&S is about a character who puts it on. In Jude and Hamlet, her ahead of time unconventionality and strength are her undoing, but in Titanic, she is freed. Marianne, understandably as a teenager, would need to mature; she can be thoughtless and unfair, and I most dislike her dismissal of 35 year old Colonel Brandon as aged and infirm (rightly lampooned).

Let me slip aside and say

Jane Austen is ageist

Not only are her heroines ridiculously sensible at 19-21, (even though Jane was double that age when writing – oh we have Anne in Persuasion who’s mid 20s), but she makes the mothers or grandmothers beyond romance and beauty. Lively Mrs Jennings is a widow in the book s0 why not have a romance for her? What about Mrs Dashwood, who is my favourite – only 40, as alive as her middle daughter, and whose wit is removed from the Ang Lee/Thomson version: “men are safe here, let them be ever so rich” and her riposte to Marianne’s inability to imagine that anyone older than her can love. Note how dowdy and pale Gemma Jones is made as Mrs D. What about her and the Colonel?

Austen’s men get wives half their age which by today’s standards would seem dubious.

Back to my corset: I don’t want understanding of those mores revived in our day, thank you. I’m pleased that sex before marriage and children or living together without marriage are not things that most of us bother to judge any more. I don’t want crushing etiquette and class delineation to be revived, or those fragile reputations. And I don’t want to go back to a world of deference and where we never learn to speak what we feel (see my article on Her this Feb).

Let me be clear – I have strong values; just not those constricting, judging ones that Austen lovers seem to see themselves as guardians of.

As for sexuality: everyone who exercises it in Austen is a tart or blaggard. And we’re so upset that anyone might adapt or spoof Austen and go higher than a U certificate. I stick up for Andrew Davies now for putting that (very slight, sensuous) seduction scene at the start of his 2008 Sense and Sensibility. The book’s got a dull opening to adapt and that act, as Jane herself says, is the ‘vice’ that set of all the others. People in Austen who are sexual are gold-diggers and preyers on minors; they shock polite society. Heaven help what Willoughby and Marianne might have done in that barouche the day of the picnic…. well, wouldn’t most of us as a passionate couple? But of course, they can’t have, if Marianne is a heroine.

Early Marianne is the most congruent of Austen heroines that I know, but instead of Elinor and her learning from each other, Marianne becomes her sister. Sense and Sensibility is the story of the taming of Marianne, if not the humbling of her. Marianne is ashamed of her conduct and tells her sister it should have been like hers. By the end, she’s promising to rise by 6 and keep busy all day, improving herself. She never really falls for Brandon, it’s engineered by her social circle (not in the 1995 film), and she becomes “devoted” and mistress of a household, family and most worryingly – patron of a parish…. all before her wisdom teeth have arrived. Yet the former Marianne often acted out of perception and a kind heart: getting up from the table to play the piano to stop a guessing game upsetting to her sister; speaking out against an attempt to defame Elinor. She is right to want to discover what’s happened with Willoughby and tell him how she feels about the ball snub, and so I support the letter than Emma Thompson criticises her for.

Elinor’s embarrassed by Marianne’s public tears on her behalf, and later is glad to note Marianne’s silent discretion the next time she feels like a blub.

Elinor tells Edward – who has stuck up t0 his dreadful mother who cast him off – that he does owe her an apology for he has given offence. I can see none, for his engagement would never need to have been concealed if his mother approved and Mrs Ferrars snr should have allowed her son the autonomy he surely deserves.

Finally, I go back to the lack of corporality allowed, that these characters are all asexual with nothing under their dresses or breeches, and how they are defended if anyone suggests otherwise! We can’t bear to think of them or Jane herself as a living, carnal woman – but Jane had a fanny, she didn’t just write a character with that name.

I know that statement and this whole article (and their sisters) will cause anger, but I note generally how people denigrate what clashes with their own opinion on something they hold precious. Whether it’s Game of Thrones (the antithesis of Jane’s world, where you’ll be criticised for criticising the normalising portrayal of violence) or the genteel drawing rooms of Austen, fans won’t stand for 1 star reviews. But it takes away freedom of speech and forgets that not everyone likes the same. There are many people – intelligent, cultured, well read, tasteful – who don’t like Austen, find her boring, don’t understand the appeal (I’m told Bronte was one). Perhaps because I was one, in my corset, I feel the need to talk about Austen and ensure corsets do not return, for the reanimation of those social objurgations really scares me and rouses me as the former Marianne.

I now feel like watching the zombie version, the Fight Club spoof, or the one Austen I rate – Rozema’s Mansfield Park.

But let’s be honest: Jane wouldn’t do well on one of the writing schools at Chawton — conspicuous exposition in dialogue, telling not showing, heavy backstory at the beginning, baggy endings of endless codas.

Am I going to stop this now? For this article, yes, but the future? I suspect I’ll dust Austen off again for another rant.

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