Tuesday, July 18, 2017

two centuries ago today, Jane Austen died, a few thoughts on one of Wenatchee The Hatchet's literary heroes

I've written this thought a few times before but the two literary voices I most leaned on as influences for how this blog works have been Jane Austen and Joan Didion.  If I had to boil my literary heroes down to a mere two figures I guess they'd be Dostoevsky and Austen. Fortunately nobody really has to distill their literary inspirations down to a mere two authors, but if I had to pick just two those would be the two.

I consider Austen one of the great comedic geniuses of English language literature.  That Austen's characters spend so much time navigating, with success or abject failure, the differences between the formalities of expected public discourse and the private realities of what people really do has been a natural fit for a lot of my literary and regional historical interests. 

Ten years on it actually feels inevitable that Wenatchee The Hatchet would be a Jane Austen fan who has written a lot about the gap between the branding and the interior reality of what used to be called Mars Hill.  I'm also a Christopher Nolan fan and his penchant for telling stories about corrupt and corruptible men who fool themselves into thinking the terrible things they want to do are the right thing to do is another inspiration for the kinds of stuff I love writing about. 

But as a contrast to the dudely dude chest-thumpery of Mark Driscoll and the bros who admire him, it would be difficult to find a literary figure who might be more antithetical in style and guiding ethic than, say, Jane Austen. 

I'd planned to write more for this particular day but there's other writing I've been tackling.  So drawing some inspiration from some famous Christian author who's had no problem shamelessly recycling old content ... we can do something like that here.

Here's an old piece from a few years ago that ... somebody ... wrote about Jane Austen's most famous literary work back in 2013. 

With a few years between publication and the present, it's evident to anyone who has read the book that Austen regarded the mercenary pragmatism of the Collins marriage to be less than ideal.  Yet Charlotte's correction to her friend Lizzy was to say that not everyone had the beauty and brains to have the luxury of shooting down a suitor on the assumption that another offer was just around the corner.  Lizzy could afford that, Charlotte could not.  Yet by novel's end it was abundantly clear that we weren't supposed to regard the stupid horndogs Wickham and Lydia as having married for particularly good reasons.  It would be a bit tricky to assert that Jane Austen was a feminist or a romantic/progressive of any of the stripes we see in 21st century American culture; but it was relatively clear that she believed that a marriage that was not "just" bout business concerns and also more than just the fire of the loins was what was necessary.  Her ideals regarding romance and companionate marriage may have become so notorious that her satires of the self-aggrandizing and entitled nature of the aristocracy can be all but forgotten.

Anyway ...

Romance in Pride and Prejudice: Sometimes, We Settle
February 18, 2013

It is axiomatic that an artist’s work will be admired and disdained for a single set of qualities. Some admire the breadth and passion of Beethoven while others find his stamina and pathos tedious. Some admire the precision and pacing of Kubrick’s films while others find them pretentious.  Jane Austen is no exception; her longevity is like that of any other significant artist. The defenders and detractors never stop having their arguments about the worth of her work.

It may be worth revisiting Pride & Prejudice, which is two hundred years old this year, to consider what distinguishes her romances from contemporary romances. After all, Elizabeth Bennett is not the kind of character we can imagine will be convincingly portrayed by a Meg Ryan or a Kate Hudson, or even a Julia Roberts. Lizzy and Jane are not heroines who lend themselves to being championed by America’s sweethearts in just about any generation of film.

Arguably, Noah Berlatsky, writing for the Atlantic, has summed up the paradoxical appeal of Austen’s work: “She has to be one of the least romantic writers ever to write romance.”
Austen’s tales of romance may endure because she put so little stock in romance as we tend to define it. In an Austen novel, career advancement, real estate values, the size of an entailment, and the social and fiscal connections that come with marriage all matter. If that seems unappealing it is because we can’t conceive of a culture in which a marriage could be arranged to benefit clans rather than as the culmination of a quest for a “soulmate.” We also live in a culture which, in some sense, denies the inevitability of death.  And so Austen’s tales of matrimony and negotiation don’t make sense to us because they are often, as Berlatsky put it, as “small as life.”  Americans want life to be bigger and grander in every respect than a life could be in Jane Austen’s time.

But a title like Pride & Prejudice suggests that however domestic the tale, Austen’s themes are hardly small. Just as stories about war are rarely “just” about war, Austen’s tales of romance are not “just” stories of people who marry.  The title tips us off to character flaws before we’ve even opened the book. Though Elizabeth and Darcy are not imbued with a social or symbolic significance as apocalyptic as Dostoevsky’s characters, they do represent ways of living life. That Austen is quotidian where Dostoevsky is apocalyptic, that Austen is mundane where Dostoevsky is grotesque hardly means she was not writing about ideas. Austen had an eye for the mundane details with which philosophies of life must contend on a daily basis. Dostoevsky wrote about the personal and social cataclysms that philosophies create when untempered by other ideals.  But it is the dry domesticity of Austen’s narrative world and the long term decisions made within it that give her characters’ decisions weight.  Irreversible life-altering decisions hinge on a person’s ability or inability to make the right decision after observing mundane details.

The marriages that take place in the novel are made by people following ideals (Elizabeth and Darcy), altruistic affection (Jane and Bingley), pragmatism (Charlotte and Collins), and visceral chemistry (Lydia and Wickham).  While it is obvious that Austen did not endorse the latter pairings, it is equally clear she shows us the latter two couples are not at all disappointed with their respective catches. Charlotte Lucas isn’t ruined by settling for Mr. Collins any more than Lydia is unhappy to be married to Wickham.  Charlotte realistically assessed herself, knew marriage to be a sure defense against poverty and loneliness, and pragmatically accepted the best offer she had. Charlotte could tell Lizzy that Lizzy had the luxury of being beautiful enough and clever enough to actually turn down proposals. But Charlotte had neither and so went with her best option. Austen’s stories are stories in which social, economic, and sexual capital are all part of a calculation for a plausible pairing as a business decision, not merely a quest for true love. But even Lydia, silly as she is, never seems unhappy with Wickham or the support they get from the Darcys by books’ end.  They just continue as they do.

Today we may recognize that the ideal is Lizzy and Darcy, but when our culture advises to settle we prefer to settle for Lydia and Wickham rather than Charlotte and Collins.  The love that bursts forth like a fire, demolishing property and removing clothing, was the sort that Austen made fun of.  Yet in the 21st century that sort of attraction is so taken for granted that director Joe Wright determined that Austen was too discreet to tell us the real reason Lizzy and Darcy fall for each other. So it turns out for a contemporary film-maker to sell himself on Lizzy and Darcy he has to believe they were drawn to each other like Lydia and Wickham. They are now heroes for sublimating their desire more decorously than others.  But that sort of erotic obsession goes past the point of even Lydia and Wickham to become the obsession of Dmitry Karamazov with Grushenka, only benefiting from the refinement of English manners.

In Austen’s actual novel, Lizzy and Darcy must overcome their own character flaws to discover they love each other.  In Wright’s film they simply need to contain themselves long enough to get social permission to do what they soon realized they wanted to do.  Cinema is full of tales where transgressive love is prized as a philosophical statement. “Theirs was a forbidden love” has been the clarion call to more than one or two made-for-TV-dramas. If the sparks create a fire hot enough then the heat was worth it.  This ethos is so prized it was shoe-horned into a Jane Austen adaptation. Apparently without that spark we won’t believe her story in our time.

Even evangelicals who claim that we should not be like the world still seem to want that devouring spark. When evangelical speakers and writers say that a marriage founded on anything but mutual love and attraction is going to fail, this indicates ignorance not merely of literature but of history. Negotiated lives together have happened in all sorts of ways. Because the spark of mutual sexual attraction inevitably wanes, friendship is important.

So far, so obvious. But great art, music, and literature help us avoid underestimating the obvious. Charlotte and Mr. Collins may not know the rapturous heights of mutual affection that Lizzy and Darcy know, but neither do they feel the imagined betrayals or wounded egos with bitterness and shame.  For Mr. and Mrs. Lucas the whole thing was to make sure the clergyman had his wife and the wife had her home. Having asked for no more than that and having found it, that was that. Though they may seem insultingly insular and provincial to us, they found their happy ending.

That Austen showed us happy endings even for those who settled in marriage is a reason for her greatness. It is because we know the marriages in that time and place could not be simply annulled that Charlotte’s decision bears a hint of tragedy. She settled, and she settled in a way we hope never to do. And by novel’s end Lydia and Wickham also settled, in their own way. In their world there can be no seven-year itch in which they reconsider their choices.  But both couples seem happy, if not wise, and by contemporary American romantic tropes they may be sitting in a church pew near you or me.

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