Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clarissa as Feminist Heroine?

Is that why Virginia Woolf gave Mrs. Dalloway the first name of Clarissa?

Increasingly (I have read about 20 percent of the book) it seems to me that Clarissa's real tragedy was to be an extremely bright person, perhaps smarter than everyone around her, trapped in the body of a beautiful young woman in a time and a place that had no real use for intelligent women. Her verbal dexterity unsettles everyone; this is essentially why she is locked up. Though forbidden to write letters, of course she keeps doing so; finally pen, ink and paper are taken away from her (though she has hidden some of each, fortunately, since the plot would come to a standstill if not).

She accepts the limits put on women in her world, and yet demands to be accepted as a rational creature with free will, a stance which is outraging nearly everyone, especially her increasingly deranged and creepy brother. And what, I have to wonder, was Samuel Richardson thinking about when he created this character?

Jane Austen's tragedy is also to be brighter than everyone around her, in a time and place that afforded but little outlet for her genius. Yet she took this problem -- at least in the world of her creation, her novels and her letters -- and made it funny.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


In addition to learning about Jane Austen and her times, I have undertaken to read some of the books that she would have read. Tom Jones, which we know from the letters she read in her teens, was my first step, and a novel I should have read long ago on its own merits, because it is hilarious. Now I am embarked on Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, and finding it a bit more of a slog, not least bit hilarious, but with its own dark fascination.

I realized why few, if any, ever read "Clarissa" in an English class when I saw it waiting for me on the reserve shelf at the library. It is huge! As in, War and Peace huge, without the excuse of having years, generations, continents, an entire war (and a peace) to cover. As in 1,536 pages huge. What is more amazing, the events described in it take place over only nine months, giving rise to the possibility that a slow reader might take longer to read the action than Clarissa and her fictional friends did to live it. Being an epistolary novel adds to its real-time feeling. It is like watching paint dry, only slightly more suspenseful, I marvel to myself, and yet somehow I keep reading it.

In some ways, I am reminded of a fairy tale. Clarissa Harlowe, beautiful, intelligent and virtuous, is shunned and abused by her relatives for refusing to marry the horrid man they have selected for her. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem: Clarissa's grandfather has left her considerable property, passing over his sons and two other grandchildren, which has sent Clarissa's odious brother and sister, who never liked her anyway, over the edge. Some in Clarissa's family --her mother, and an aunt -- secretly sympathize but are too beaten down to stand up for her. Complicating Clarissa's situation is that the notorious rake Lovelace, whom the sister at one point aspired to marry despite his "faulty morals," has turned his attentions to Clarissa. The family cannot abide Lovelace, because he nearly killed Clarissa's brother in a duel (long story). The obsessive concern that she will run away with Lovelace anyway, thus making them all look like fools, leads to the decision to essentially imprison her in the house.

A key plot point of "Tom Jones" is also the effort to marry a virtuous young woman (Sophia Western) off to a man she loathes, making me wonder how often this problem occurred in real life at the time. Or was it simply a fictional device with a lot of potential? In "Pride and Prejudice," this motif appears, but with a highly comic treatment, when Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet. More seriously, Fanny Price feels pressure to accept Henry Crawford in "Mansfield Park," but it is of a far more subtle kind. And no Austen parent would think of accepting on behalf of the young women, as Sophia and Clarissa's fathers do without hesitation. Whether the status of women changed so much in 50-60 years, or Austen's novels are simply truer to life, cannnot be determined from the information given.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

Whose Jane Austen?

Ever since there have been Jane Austen fans, they have been split between two warring camps, each convinced that the others are idiots and/or snobs, liking Jane Austen for all the wrong reasons.

In our own time, this could be best described as the split between the people who really, really, really like that scene in the A&E 1995 version of "Pride and Prejudice" in which Colin Firth dives into a pond at Pemberely, perhaps even to the point of not realizing there is no such scene in the book -- perhaps because they never read the book! -- and the people who... well, who think those people are airheads.

Although this divide may have become more acute since the 1990s and the rash of Jane Austen adaptations for TV and film that have followed, it is in fact far older, and relates to a certain duality in how Jane Austen has been perceived ever since the beginning, relates in fact to the very ambiguity at the heart of her work. Was she a sweet, genteel lady who wrote light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting? Or was she one of the greatest geniuses ever to write in English, producing subtle work of surpassing irony under the guise of writing light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting?

To which I can only reply, yes. One reading need not rule out the other. A reader (or viewer) drawn to Jane Austen for the cozy, romantic aspects of her work may later find there is more to it than immediately meets the eye. Or not, in which case they have still had a lot of fun, and a glancing encounter with something more bracing than Harlequin romances.

It is, of course, the serious people who really can't stand the Pemberley-pond camp, both because they fear being lumped with them, and because they feel that these morons are somehow unworthy of their Jane, and are indeed sullying her with their regard.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

About Money

Money is important in Jane Austen's world, but usually the general is more important than specific. Mr. Bingley of Pride and Prejudice is considered a very good catch with an income of £4,000 or £5,000 a year. But when people learn his friend Mr. Darcy has an income of £10,000 a year, they are speechless, agog, seriously impressed. Thus by the context of people's reactions, we know the difference between the two incomes, without really knowing (or needing to know) what £10,000 or £5,000 would mean in today's money. Also notice that Darcy and Bingley are friends, occupying the same general social position, doing the same sort of things. This would not necessarily be true in our world, if one friend, say, made $30,000 and the other $60,000.

Likewise, Emma Woodhouse, with a fortune of £30,000 (notice how the woman's wealth is expressed in a lump sum, while men's wealth is expressed as annual income, as was the convention of the time) is the wealthiest of Jane Austen's heroines. (While Jane Austen's actual circumstances, as the unmarried daughter of clergyman living with her widowed mother, were closer to the unfortunate Miss Bates.) But what does Emma's £30,000 mean, really? It makes Mr. Elton want to marry her, but as she herself reflects, failing to win Miss Woodhouse with £30,000, he would be just as happy to marry Miss Someone Else with £20,000 or £10,000. A fortune of £10,000, as I recall, is what sparks Mr. Wickham's sudden interest in Mary King ("that nasty little freckled thing," as Lydia calls her).

Small amounts of money are not as important in Jane Austen, but I am sure I am not the only American reader to be baffled by English money. What, exactly, is a quid? A bob? How many shillings in a pound? Where do guineas fit in? This I have finally gotten around to figuring out, with the help of "All Things Austen," an amazing two-volume guide I recommend to everyone with an extra $157.95 they are unsure of how to wisely spend.

Old-style English money consisted of pounds, shillings and pennies (pence). Twelve pence in a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, thus 120 pence in a pound. They were abbreviated as £, s and d, of which only the £ makes any sense to me. A guinea, which seems a most unnecessary unit of money, was 21 shillings. Confusing the issue were coins like the crown (five shillings) and the half-crown (2s, 5d), the half guinea (10s, 6d), the third guinea (7s) and the half pound. As well as the sixpence, immortalized in the nursery rhyme.

But I think the shilling level is what makes it most confusing for modern readers conditioned to think in the decimal world of dollars and cents. Those stockings Jane mentions in a letter that cost 4s 3d a pair. (4 x12 + 3): Why not just say they cost 51 pence? Who knows, but people did not, as the literature makes clear.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Reading Between the Biographers

In her lifetime Jane Austen was not an unsuccessful writer -- she did all right, though not amazingly well -- despite not publishing a book until 1811, the year she turned 36. It only seems that way, because her rock-star status did not come until much later. (We cannot avoid feeling astonished at the obtuseness of her contemporary readers, who did not recognize her genius and rate her higher than say, Maria Edgeworth. What is Castle Rankrent, anyway, these days, to anyone except an obscure reference in The Great Gatsy? Who actually reads Sir Walter Scott, who doesn't have to?)

Jane Austen did all right. But she was not famous. Quite the contrary, for, as is well known, during her lifetime the authorship of her books were ascribed to "A Lady" (Sense and Sensibility, her first published work) and later to "The Author of Sense and Sensibility" or "The Author of Pride and Prejudice." She sought to avoid not merely being famous, but being known at all. And this raises two questions. One is, why? And the other is, what are some strange effects this had?

The why is fairly simple. Jane Austen came from a social class and a milieu in which respectable woman did not seek public notice. She was no Mary Wollstonecraft, nor was meant to be; compared to her Fanny Burney was a wild woman.

The effects it had are more complicated to relate, but I think the primary one, at least the one I keep going back to, is this: Everything, really that we know about Jane Austen, in a first-person, I've-met-her sort of way, comes from her family. Not only that, but almost entirely from relatives of the generation that followed hers, nieces and nephews who remembered her from childhood, or young adulthood, as a friendly maiden aunt. People, in late middle age, combing their memories for recollections of their now quite-famous Aunt Jane.

Can you possibly imagine anything more doomed than that? Less certain to provide a one-sided and limited view of a person who had to be, at the very least, pretty complex?

And it gets worse. Jane Austen, b. 1775, came of age in the robust, earthy 18th century intellectual climate of Johnson, Boswell, Fielding et al. A world where respectable people could still joke about subjects like bedbugs, drunkenness and illegitimate births. Her nieces and nephews lived under Queen Victoria, reading Dickens and George Eliot. A nagging sense that Aunt Jane was perhaps not entirely genteel, not altogether The Angel in the House, seems to suffuse their memories. Not in what they say, but what they don't.

Of course, we do know about her from her own letters. But that is a subject for another day.