Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Austen powers

The disappointing thing about Becoming Jane is its assumption that in order for Jane Austen to have written the novels she did, she had to have experienced their romantic dramas in real life. It’s got “biographical fallacy” written all over it. And as with many biographical fallacies, there's a twinge of misogyny involved. We don’t assume that Daniel Defoe was shipwrecked for twenty-eight years on a deserted island. Or decide that Dickens must have spent his youth as an orphaned London pickpocket. So why must Jane Austen have fallen in love with a prideful snob whom she originally despised? Why don’t we trust her with enough creativity to have come up with that on her own?

Tom Lefroy did spark Austen’s interest. It’s not as if the filmmakers made him up. Her crushed-out comments about him are preserved in her letters to her sister Cassandra. But the entire episode lasted about two weeks. It’s not impossible that Austen based Mr. Darcy on Lefroy; maybe she did. But why must we rush around making films pushing the idea that Austen simply funneled her lived experience into her novels, without any of the imaginative sweating and grunting we attribute to our male writers of genius?

The film’s taglines make its agenda plain. Her own life is her greatest inspiration. And Between sense and sensibility and pride and prejudice was a life worth writing about. Actually, her life wasn’t worth writing about, it was fairly boring—that’s why she wrote novels. The source of Jane Austen’s talent wasn’t her ability to write from English Regency middle-class life; it was her knack for standing apart from it. Her avoidance of marriage and children, her finesse at sidestepping the sexist demands of flirtations and engagements and wifehood, were what allowed her to observe and satirize them all so astutely in the first place.

It seems to me that what we’re really afraid of here is letting Jane off the hook as celibate, which she almost certainly was. Celibacy doesn’t sit well with our modern 24-hour porn hotline sensibilities (or, admittedly, our feminist sex-positive ones). The idea of an Austen who never got down to it is just...disappointing, and vaguely un-adult. We want the woman who set up the electric sexual currents between Lizzie and Darcy and Emma and Mr. Knightley to have known first-hand what she was dipping her nib in her inkwell about. That she didn’t doesn’t detract from her artistry. It only confirms it.

1 comment:

emmy hennings said...

I couldn't agree with you more on this topic, Lizzie. The very idea of this stupid film makes me so angry. Apart from the biographical fallacy which you outline so well (Austen as just another female life writer, her novels thinly-veiled diaries or something) there's also the wholly offensive and patronising notion that it took some kind of romantic/sexual encounter with a man for Austen's 'genius' to be 'realised'. 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?

Which leads me onto the next point: that trying to construct a traditional "romance" narrative for Austen's life is to completely misread her intentions and her achievements as a novelist. Austen is a supremely anti-romantic writer: love does not conquer all in her books. Many of her characters make marriages because they have to, not because they want to - she reflects very clearly the position of middle-class women at the time. I always think of Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice - a woman who makes a marriage which is on one level absurd but on another is "a very suitable match". And Austen does not judge her character for it. Mr Collins may be a fool, but Charlotte is not stupid for making a rational decision to accept the only offer of marriage she's likely to get. It was a marriage market in Regency England, and I'm sure that resisting this - sidestepping it, as you say - took enormous strength of will.

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 and lust and longing but in the absence of its consummation?