Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Austen powers II: The Jane who shagged me

Emmy wrote in with some incisive comments about Becoming Jane and its anxious reification of Austen's sex life:

It's this strange kind of patriarchal baptism, as if only a man could unlock her own creativity and give it back to her - as a gift? The consolation prize for a broken heart?...The celibacy thing: again, a presumption that for a woman to feel or understand desire - and to be able to translate that experience creatively - she necessarily has had sex with a man, or come close to it. Absurdity! How else does one experience desire and lust and longing but in the absence of its consummation?

One doesn't, as the entire career of Morrissey has proved.

Emmy also points out the misguidedness of the film's effort "to construct a traditional 'romance' narrative for Austen's life," since this rearrangement "completely misread[s] her intentions and her achievements as a novelist." One such achievement was her nonjudgmental--and proto-third wave feminist--recognition that a woman must be trusted to follow her intuition about what was best for her. She knew that different choices were ideal for different women, and nowhere is that credo more manifest than in the character of Charlotte Lucas (also cited by Emmy). Austen sets up her readers to be horrified by Charlotte's acceptance of Mr. Collins precisely so that she can later convince them of its logic. A loveless marriage is not right for Lizzy Bennet. It is, however, right for Charlotte, because they are different kinds of women. Austen urges us not to judge Charlotte for her choice, which actually turns out to be quite cunning in its way; Mr. Collins spends most of his time either at Rosings Park or in his own apartment, and Charlotte is free to do with herself--and her new income--as she pleases.

Sanden also chimed in on some of these issues, saying quite correctly that the biographical fallacy can be seen at work on men as well as women. He offered the example of Shakespeare in Love, which reconstructs the playwright's early life as a kind of moment-for-moment inspiration for every line and allusion used in Romeo and Juliet.

There are three reasons I don't think Shakespeare in Love's fallacious biography is in the same league as Jane's. First, Shakespeare is a farce, delivered with wink-wink nudge-nudge literary playfulness by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. "Look," they say with great delight, "there's a skull! There's a girl named Viola! There's a Puritan on a street corner yelling, 'A plague on both your houses!'" The biographical inventions are not to be taken too seriously. Nobody thinks that's how Shakespeare really wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Jane, on the other hand, takes its fallacy as plausible lost truth. Viola de Lesseps never existed, but Tom Lefroy did, so his inclusion and inflation in the film bring with them the shimmer of historical possibility. As James McAvoy (Lefroy/Darcy) puts it, "He becomes her first flirtation, really. In historical reference he was probably--we think--one of her first beaux. Even though nothing came of it. [The movie] just charts their relationship, and how it might have influenced the novels that she went on to write, and the characters therein."

Second, Shakespeare's reputation as a writer isn't exactly up for discussion. His is the quintessential authorliness, the creative masculinity that generates art through toil and invention and original thought. He is not tethered, as Austen is, to a tradition for thinking about women writers as mere regurgitators of personal experience that goes back to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Because it buys into this tradition, Becoming Jane risks convincing a new generation of readers that Austen was just a spunky gal with untapped writing potential until she met a sexy man--and then dished about it in novel form. Biopics are great at flattening complex lives into digestible films, and don't discriminate between the sexes; it's just that women are already starting out on the bottom of the ladder.

Finally, when a film that is not a romantic farce, but a romantic drama, offers precise translations of fiction into biography, the whole thing just feels tedious and condescending. As in this scene from Jane, in which Maggie Smith does her best Lady Catherine de Bourgh impression and the text of Chapter 56 of P&P is all but painted across the frame.

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