Feminism & Jane Austen

Well, now that I’ve tried to recover from all the excitement of Virago Reading Week (I was staying up late and waking up early, eager to read what everyone had posted!) and have only spent the time with my thoughts about literature and feminism jumping about more and more in my head, it seems time to discuss a few more things.

There are still a few Virago reviews popping up, including this one by Rachel at Flowers & Stripes, about Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street, which she tried for ten years to get published and was constantly turned down because it was considered too bleak and depressing. It’s about working class women living in poverty and violence, from what I can gather. But haven’t men written about the working class before, why should this have been so unpublishable? Angela Carter was the one who encouraged Barker to submit it to Virago and so began her career, as a Booker winner! (Though she won the Booker for writing about men and male themes, namely soldiers and war. I’d like to read the Regeneration trilogy, I’m just saying.)

I was amused and awakened by this part of the review:

It’s the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definitely not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the ‘we used to be rich but now we’re living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny’s fur stole to keep us warm’ type poor. This is ‘thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don’t too’ type poverty.

As a matter of fact, I did read a bit of I Capture the Castle recently (comic yet heartfelt coming of age in tumbling pile), which I enjoyed more than I expected to and most of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I didn’t really enjoy. Horrors, but it seemed that her life was actually unfulfilled, with a husband who doesn’t pay attention and endless envy of those better off, or else that it’s just British humour exaggerating things, in either case, the life described seemed small and I couldn’t see the meaning in it. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood and feeling restless?

To be fair, I’ve also got a library stack of more feminist books like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood and honestly… I’m not reading them either. I considered Elizabeth Bowen, since I own most of her books in beautiful editions and have only read two (but what fantastic two: The Death of the Heart and The Last September. I highly recommend her as another great early 20th century female author! Darlene of roses over a cottage door is also reading and loving To the North right now.) — I really want to read and promote more of her books, but none of them were quite right just now.

I tried to read some Proust again, since I keep longing to think more deeply and privately like that, but it began to seem too ornate and also too male, with his mother obsession. (I have read In Search of Lost Time before, I’m just not always in the mood for that much neurosis!) I tried to read Thoreau’s nature journals and fell asleep. They are beautifully written in places and I do enjoy good nature writing on occasion, but better for skimming than linear beginning to end reading, is all I can conclude. (I’ve tried to read them before and was even then, quite rightly distracted by Virago books!)

As for Virago books, I’m definitely wanting to read more, especially Rosamond Lehmann and so was happy to find this article by Jonathan Coe about her and other Virago authors and how he discovered them and is inspired by them in his own writing.

Thinking further about Dusty Answer, I realized it has many of the same basic elements as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — both extremely nostalgic stories about a lost upper class British way of life, with the outsider main characters completely enamoured of a rich and glamorous troubled family. Both main characters also go to one of the big British universities, Judith Cambridge, Charles Oxford. They also both form sudden and extremely intense relationships with one beautifully charming person, who takes a liking to them for no real reason. These relationships both hint at going beyond simple friendship, and indeed both of their charming friends are involved with other homosexual characters. What else, other love affairs don’t work out as well as hoped, although for different reasons. And let me add… Lehmann’s book was written in 1927. Waugh’s? 1945. Waugh’s novel has never been out of print, while Lehmann’s was and remains almost forgotten. Personally, I wasn’t quite a fan of Brideshead (more horrors?), the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life. Dusty Answer has a more uncertain ending, but also one that gives freedom and opportunity to women. The future is open, not reigned in by platitudes and dead duties.

I’ve now picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to be what I want. I read it for the first time last year without ever knowing how to properly write about it, there was so much beauty but also so much sadness. As someone who’s been through an at times suicidal depression, I didn’t know what could be said that wouldn’t seem too personal. I’d like to explore it more here this year, there’s so much that is fresh and joyful and so lyrical about it. It seems I could read the first few pages over and over, for sheer pleasure. Woolf was very influenced by Proust, but there is nothing overly ponderous or self pitying about her work, there is such a celebration of life. And yet she shows the darkness too. I have a lovely Mrs. Dalloway Reader, edited by Francine Prose, which also includes the short stories that developed into the novel, as well as selections from her diary about writing it and essays by other critics about it, of her time and ours, I keep wandering into these parts and learning more about Mrs. Dalloway instead of reading it at times!

The real unedited Jane Austen. Deal with it.

I’m still thinking about how to see Jane Austen as a feminist, although I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about it, for fear of feathers and ruffling and all that. But the gist of my idea is — what if Jane Austen didn’t marry not because she never met a man who could be her Mr. Darcy but because… she wanted her freedom? To continue writing and thinking for herself. My romantic self would think it so sad she remained single and yet wrote these classic romances and yet, that image of her as a pining romantic didn’t gibe with the lively sharp witted and even at times spiteful author I sensed in the books themselves, who would never tolerate any such sentimental nonsense. The truth is, if a woman did marry in that time, they’d be worn out from having babies All The Time. They wouldn’t be able to write and they wouldn’t be having endless fancy love times either! Sex would likely be frightening because of the endless pregnancies. And Jane gave up in a large and poorer household, she knew what it would be like for her.

Being single and relying on her male relatives for support wasn’t easy either, but at least she had that metaphorical room of her own. The other idea I had is that maybe she did slip the reality of women’s lives into her novels, but it was hidden under the necessity (for a woman writer at least) of a happy conventional ending. Most men then and now, are more likely to be either like her bad men, and Wickham, Willoughby, Crawford, Mr. Collins etc do seem completely realistic in their self-centeredness or they’d be a more realistic version of her heroes. In reality, Darcy would continue to be an arrogant snob, Tilney a know-it-all tease, Knightley a scold, always wanting to fix Emma, just as she wants to fix others, Wentworth is resentful, Edmund Bertram blinded by infatuation. And both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars are nice, but bland. (Honestly, read the book, Colonel Brandon is never sexy. I’ve tried and tried to read him that way and it just won’t work.)

I think the realistic sides of these men are shown in the first three quarters or so of the books before their completely abrupt turn arounds, with often very sudden and unlikely proposals all around at the end. (Tilney and Catherine, really? Fanny and Edmund, come on. Also anyone, have you ever heard of a real Mr. Darcy changing that much?? Well, have you, I’d like to know! Usually they are far too aware of their elevated positions to go after anyone less than perfect. In women’s novels the richer man tends to love the poorer woman. In men’s novels the hard to get girl suddenly falls for the nerd. It’s all a fantasy without any equality, and equality, a meeting of equals, is what’s needed in a balanced relationship. It’s just not as exciting…)

Dead inside Jane Austen who never actually existed.

If you read Austen’s juvenilia, she satirizes romance and romantic expectations in novels to no end. I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that! Also that movie Becoming Jane? What kind of sentimental tosh is that, that her doe-eyed princess diary juvenilia was sloppy and horrid trash until a man came into her life?! This trivialization and infantilization of female authors is truly appalling (you can bet if there was a bio pic of Hemingway the facts wouldn’t be so badly distorted). Go read Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach (rare link to actual book included, because it really is that good), where she discusses how Austen’s image has been tampered with over the years, from the first memoir written about her by her nephew, to make her look more pretty and safe and sweet, just good old Aunt Jane. The actual painting of her by her sister Cassandra, which looks cross and fed up and but also perhaps privately amused, looking critically at the world behind her folded arms (the first picture above), has even over the years been changed into things like the second picture I’ve included, which wasn’t an actual painting of her, just a prettified tidying up of the first and only painting of her!!! Now she wears nicer clothes, she’s not critical or even laughing, she just looks bored.

Similar things have happened to the Brontes to downplay that they knew how revolutionary their writing was (fancy women writing about alcoholism and revenge and madness, how shocking), their misery and seclusion on the moors was played up to heighten belief in their docility and innocence. The book to read there is The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller and now I’m done. I know it’s fun to read and watch Jane Austen (and the Brontes) as escapism, but it’s also good to look more deeply sometimes too and I think there are plenty of hints in the novels that lead towards that idea, that the Regency era wasn’t one glamorous party time of romance and that women were, as usual, getting the short end of the stick. Just a thought.

Perhaps — just one further thought! — she does hold out some hope that men (and women) can change and that women can have more equal and satisfying marriages built on love and mutual respect. But to my mind the transitions between her selfish ‘heroes’ suddenly becoming good men ready to marry the poor but plucky heroines are far too quick and unlikely. Perhaps in time, when more women refuse to be blinded by social conventions and write more openly about reality and are less willing to jump through sexist hoops, just as Jane Austen tried to do, then these kind of equal relationships can happen.

35 thoughts on “Feminism & Jane Austen

  1. Teresa says:

    Oh, so much to respond to–I just choose a couple of things.

    First, I think Alan Rickman did Colonel Brandon a far bigger favor than Colin Firth ever gave Mr. Darcy. With the help of Emma Thompson’s superb screenplay, he gave a rather dull hero on the page extreme sex appeal. Darcy, IMO, had ample sex appeal on the page, Firth just provided a visual anchor.

    Also, I must look into Searching for Jane Austen. I’ve not read any Austen biographies, but there’s something I find patently offensive in the idea that Austen could not possibly have written love stories without having some great lost passion in her own life. Yes, she may have, but calling her work in as evidence is ridiculous. As if she couldn’t have great imagination fed my reading and observing and talking with other people. Surely we don’t assume all writers are directly inspired by their own lives! And I have stubbornly avoided Becoming Jane Austen because it looks like the worst possible example of that idea.

    • Carolyn says:

      I do like Alan Rickman in that movie, but it’s important to take Hollywood book adaptations with a grain of salt or common sense or something! At least it is actually based on one of her novels, vs. Becoming Jane, which is based on nothing but nonsense. I was so angry leaving the theatre when I saw it! I haven’t fully read any biographies of her, although I’ve skimmed the Claire Tomalin one and own a short Penguin Lives one by Carol Shields too. This year I’ve told myself I can only reread Mansfield Park, which I’ve read the least, or a biography just to experience the more realistic less hyped side of Jane Austen. (Also many problems with movie versions of Mansfield Park, there again Fanny has to be prettier and wittier than she is in the book.)

      • Iris says:

        I’m a HP fan, so it is not the same for me. But yes, Snape is definitely the best character in the movies. So perfectly cast. I start smiling as soon as he is on screen.

  2. Becky (Page Turners) says:

    What an epic and fascinating post. I don’t have time to think about everything you have said but I will say that I am pleased to have borrowed from the library my first Virago book, a collection of ghost stories by various authors, and I am very much looking forward to it.

    I am going to email myself this post as a reference guide for when I feel in the mood for a great feminist/female author read.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m glad you’re reading your first Virago, they pick interesting selections for their anthologies! I liked the Virago Book of Christmas, obviously at Christmas. I hope you get something out of what I’ve written, I don’t know if I’m a bit obnoxious in wanting to write about more feminist issues in literature, but I feel like Virago turned on a light bulb inside me and I don’t want to turn it off again and pretend that our society isn’t sexist, when it clearly still is. And epic post this was, it wanted to be about three different posts, but I wanted to write them all at once!

  3. bookssnob says:

    Carolyn! Such a rich post! I am reading ‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged; 33 Great Writers on why we read Jane Austen’, and these 33 interpretations are really enriching my reading of Jane and reminding me of her multi faceted brilliance. Jane Austen’s brilliance at exploring relationships between men and women, and her understanding of what made couples work – and what didn’t – proves that you hardly need to have a ring on your finger to write about romance. I get very angry when people say Jane Austen was a romantically starved spinster writing romance stories to feed her own shrivelled heart – hardly! She wrote what she saw and experienced around her, and there’s certainly a reason why every book ends at the marriage ceremony and goes no further. Marriage, and its dangers, is explored in depth – Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to Mr Collins, Lydia and Wickham, Mr and Mrs Bennett, Mary and Charles Musgrove…all show what happens when a marriage is rushed into, either with only love and not enough sense, or too much sense and not enough love. Jane does not romanticise romance – she sees very clearly the importance of marriage, and the importance of marrying well. Foolish partnerships are laid bare on the pages, and the reader is invited to be just as worried about the outcome as Austen herself is. While good matches happen – all her heroines marry well – we know from the other marriages she presents as a foil to these happy pairings that marriage is not always a happy ever after, and compromise and struggle and arguments and misunderstandings will happen. She is no sugar coater. She is no pure romance writer. She is a realist. And that is why her books endure.

    Was she a feminist? Well, she believed, that as a woman, she had something to say that was worth reading by the masses. So in that sense, yes. In terms of her characters, though, she shows just as many strong women as she does foolish ones. I don’t think her writing has a particular ‘feminist’ agenda, but rather a humanist one – she sees human nature with a remarkably acute eye, and exposes it mercilessly, and she is just as willing to deride her own sex as she is the opposite. So I wouldn’t call her a feminist writer, but I would call her a feminist in that she wasn’t content to fulfil the common role of a woman of her time, ie. wife/dutiful daughter pouring tea in the parlour. But I’m willing to persuaded otherwise on that. I need to think on it more.

    • Carolyn says:

      Wonderful analysis, Rachel, better than I can do. I don’t know what definition of feminist you’re thinking of in relation to her, I don’t think being a feminist means you think women are right all the time, Angel by Elizabeth Taylor portrays a very selfish woman and she’s compared to Jane Austen. I guess my basic idea of feminism is that women should be treated equally and if they aren’t then be aware of it and try to do something about it, even just bringing the topic up and not hiding it under haven’t women come so far already or whatever. But it could mean different things in the past, when there were fewer opportunities for women, I think any female having a voice through her writing, daring to express her opinions, is commiting a feminist act. I’ll have to think about Jane Austen and feminism more also, these ideas just began to occur to me during the reading week. Austen is pretty conservative, she condemns women who are too wild and sexy, like Lydia and Mary Crawford. I think her treatment of Marianne Dashwood is also a little harsh, she distances the reader from her and satirizes her excessively romantic inclinations, she’s not allowed to be free to pursue the love she wants like Mary Wollstonecraft say, she must settle down with the man chosen by her family, despite the pain of Willoughby’s betrayal. Can that be seen in a feminist light (showing the realities of women’s position), what were her intentions, it’s hard to say! Maybe she is only showing life’s realities for women, that while Mary Crawford is condemned for being a bit heartless, Tom Bertram who’s lived a more dissolute life, is forgiven by the family. I like your idea that she’s a humanist. (And keep in mind I’m writing this after two in the morning, has to be time for sleeping!)

      • bookssnob says:

        Well I think that the way we use ‘feminist’ now in regards to literature is not really a definition I would apply to Jane Austen. I consider literature with a feminist agenda to be that which highlights the subordination of women and their subjection to male patriarchy. While Jane presents strong female characters and places an emphasis on women making equal matches, she does not really present a single life as being superior to a married one, or advocate increased educational opportunities for women, or voice concerns about the treatment of women in bad marriages. The women who make bad marriages in her novels make these marriages because they are foolish and not because the men they marry are brutes. Austen invites her female heroines to take responsibility for their own lives, and to assert their independence for their own benefit, and not to settle for less than they deserve, which is wonderful, but I wouldn’t call this specifically a ‘feminist’ point of view. I would just call it common sense. Austen has no time for silly, frivolous women, but she doesn’t really seem to make much of a point about the lack of educational opportunities or the stuffy drawing room atmosphere in producing such women – Emma has had the same upbringing as the Bertram daughters, for example, and she ends up a completely different person with completely different manners, morals, personality, and prospects, to them. I think Austen places the responsibility of success and happiness squarely on the individual and not the society they grew up in, and as such, I don’t really think feminism comes into play in the sense that we can say Jane Austen is making universal statements about society’s treatment of women and so has a ‘feminist’ agenda – I don’t believe she did. Obviously many would disagree with me, but from what I’ve read, I wouldn’t be comfortable reading that into her words. She never expresses any particular discomfort with the way her world worked – her criticisms are directed towards people’s morals and manners, and not the way her society was constructed.

        • Carolyn says:

          But as I mentioned somewhere below, she does show that because women aren’t always able to inherit property for instance, they have their homes taken from them, which happened to her when her father died. The Dashwood women then were at the mercy of their male relative, just as Austen was herself. She also mentions that Mr. Bennet didn’t try very hard to save up anything for his daughters or to do anything about it, while Mrs. Bennet does worry about their futures, because she’s a woman and knows that they need to be taken care of (I was imagining the other night what would have happened if Mr. Darcy hadn’t reformed… would the Bennets have to go and live with their aunt and uncle in London after their dad dies? Or their aunt in Meryton, both would be rather crowded). And she also shows that Mr. Collins and John Dashwood are idiots who don’t deserve the property and who treat these women thoughtlessly.

          So in those cases, it is the social system at fault I think, the only thing she shows that women can do is get married and that may or may not work out well, depending on their appearances — which she does highlight a lot in Pride & Prejudice, there is a definite pecking order within the women based on their looks. Charlotte Lucas is plain and so has to settle for whoever she can get, despite the fact that she may be as clever as Elizabeth, she’s just older and likely not as full of sexy vitality anymore. Jane Bennet is always expected to marry first because she’s prettiest. Elizabeth’s physical appearance being a big attraction to Darcy is also repeatedly highlighted (again, the book seems to be saying, it’s not just her wit and character that is getting her noticed). Because Mary is plain in a family of otherwise pretty girls, she feels left out and seeks for attention in other exaggerated ways. Even though she would have married Mr. Collins he never even gives her a passing thought next to Jane and Elizabeth (and even her mother never seems to think of her as a marital candidate, by hinting to Mr. Collins that he try her next, despite wanting him to marry one of them, which is a bit sad). Jane and Lizzie are genuinely good and sensible people, but isn’t it handy that they’re also pretty enough to get the men they deserve?? It’s hinted at often enough in that book that I think it can be a subtle theme, they are at the mercy of how attractive they are to the right men. (Or in Lydia and Marianne’s case, how attractive they were to the wrong man.)

          Anne Elliot and Fanny Price also don’t get noticed until their looks begin to improve, and of course Emma doesn’t worry about that, she’s not only rich enough not to need to marry, but she’s also handsome enough to be unsympathetic to people like Miss Bates (who is presented as the exact opposite of Emma in every way except their both being single), who maybe didn’t get to marry because she was plain?

          As for Emma and the Bertram girls, Emma has a doting father who treats her well and gives her grown up responsibilities from a young age, she has purpose, as well as Mr. Knightley who’s paid attention to her in a good way, treated her as a smart woman, supervised her education in a way without flattering her excessively. The Bertrams don’t have this, I think Austen does show that they turn out badly because of their snobby and self satisfied family, their mother too apathetic in her stuffy drawing room, their aunt praising them because she wants a piece of their rich lives and their father stern and distant — perhaps thinking more of his boys to pay them much attention? (The mothers and older women in Jane Austen are often silly, but perhaps this could be seen to be because they don’t have a chance to get a good education, as the men do. Anne Elliot is the only one with a silly father and a better mother figure, but even there she is guided wrongly by Lady Russell.) They don’t seem to have much to do beyond thinking well of themselves, even Edmund doesn’t seem to try to help them out, like he does with Fanny.

          The women who do well in Austen tend to have good fathers or other men to help them out. Lizzie’s father is also the one, I’m sure, who’s helped to educate her, along with the presence of his many books. The appalling conditions in Fanny’s home in Portsmith show that those women in poverty don’t stand a chance beyond childraising and work and the father figure is only there to make them work harder, not to help them out. Fanny’s younger sister may want something better, but only gets it when a rich male relative decides to let her live in his home and get an education, just as he did for Fanny, rescuing her from the same fate. The men in these women’s lives (as well as things beyond their control, like their looks, which influence men to like and help them) do influence them, for better or worse.

          • bookssnob says:

            You make some good points and I’m not denying that Jane Austen does highlight the hypocrisy and unjustness of the way society was set up to favour men and leave women at the mercy of them. You’re exactly right in her showing the frustration and unfairness of women being left with nothing when male relatives die because of entails or a lack of ability for women to provide for themselves. However I think it is difficult to label her books as feminist when she doesn’t really present an alternative; we have no women striking out on their own, no women choosing not to marry, no women daring to buck the trend; every woman follows the very conventional route of marriage and all of her heroines are delighted to do so.

            I think in highlighting the way women were subordinates and at the mercy of men, she does make the point of how unfair the system was, but her treatment of marriage and her unwillingness to let her characters stray outside of the accepted barriers of social convention does make me reluctant to label her as a ‘feminist’ as such. I haven’t reread the books in a very long time, though, and I am keen to do so and to see what I pick up on another reading regarding her opinions of the treatment of women. I will have your points in mind when I read them!

            • bookssnob says:

              you know what, I’ve just had a thought. Jane Austen doesn’t present alternatives because there really weren’t any. That has made me flip my thinking around. Maybe she is more feminist than I have thought of her as being. This is very interesting!! I am now desperate to reread all of her books. Carolyn, you are not helping me with my Reading America list right now!!! Thank you for thrashing this out with me. It’s so good to be challenged!

              • Carolyn says:

                Yes, it seems the only alternative is to be like Charlotte Lucas and marry for money or be like Austen herself, who like Miss Bates, stayed with her family and got poorer. Or there was being a widow, which could mean having more autonomy, like Mrs. Norris. I guess Mary Wollstonecraft was around Austen’s time and lived a more feminist life, but most women would be shunned for that I suspect. I’ve enjoyed having this discussion, it made me think more about the undertones of appearance in P&P and developed more of my ideas too. There is the governess option, which Miss Taylor has taken (where did she come from, I wonder?) and which Jane Fairfax is about to, but Austen herself never did as the Brontes had to, although she shows that it doesn’t sound very nice either. And certainly none of her main heroines have to fall back on that.

  4. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    I was very struck by a sentence in your post: ‘the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life’. I am not sure you have read it right. Evelyn Waugh explained in his introduction to Brideshead that it is about ‘the operation of grace’ – neither an easy concept nor a banal escapist theme for a novel. It is striking that men capable of such unflinching vision and insights into the human condition – to take just three – as Waugh, Graham Greene and T S Eliot were Christian converts (as for that matter were Boris Pasternak -‘zhivago’ is church slavonic for ‘the living God’- and Alexander Solzhenitsyn). I was at a tribute concert by Patti Smith to the late W G Sebald in Aldeburgh on Saturday evening (Jan 29) where every single one of the items had a Christian theme. Sterile? Conservative?

    • Carolyn says:

      Perhaps I am responding based on my (very negative) experience of religion and thus didn’t like the ending, but none of the characters in the Flyte family end up having children to continue the family, one becomes a nun, another can’t remarry because of a divorce, another is tortured because he’s gay. These are all problems imposed by the Catholic church and it’s too narrow restrictions on their lives, they are sterile in that very literal sense. Their family is broken up, it didn’t seem very filled with grace to me, but full of repression and rules that suck the innocent (and necessary, like continuing a family) pleasures out of life. Again, maybe I’m overreacting. I know many artists have been christians in the past (I haven’t read Greene but do like T.S. Eliot, although he was also anti-semitic), Milton, etc, I’m not arguing there can’t be great art from that tradition (John Donne, George Herbert are examples I prefer), but I found the end of Brideshead particularly joyless. The very fact that Charles is obsessed with the Flyte family, an upper class self absorbed group of people, who have a big old house and a dear little nanny, that would be a conservative nostalgia for a past that was harmful and limiting for many other people. Brideshead, book and characters therein, seemed obsessed with itself and I didn’t want anything to do with its conformist, upper class, pat yourself on the back for your suffering version of christianity. (Antonia White’s Frost in May shows the other side of too much Catholicism from a female perspective, where personality is repressed and guilt is taught, harshly. As I’ve written recently on this blog, that’s also been my experience.) But I don’t like Waugh’s other books either, his early satire also seemed harsh and joyless, maybe I’m missing some essential gene to appreciate a certain type of British book, like Diary of a Provincial Lady too!

      The other problem that I have with christianity and with the Brideshead, is that it’s all about male themes. You’ve listed male christian authors, where are the women? (There’s Dorothy L. Sayers, but she very much seems to support the old English class system with Lord Peter Wimsey and further nostalgia for the days of having servants.) Maybe there aren’t as many, because christianity just isn’t as great for women because it’s all about men being in power and control, the divine right of kings can be seen as the divine right of men in general, at least in practice. T.S. Eliot called himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” — that sounds awfully conservative to me, even if his art was modernist. Just a thought — if there was a more female focused religion I might be more intrigued but I can’t get on board with endless worship of a male deity and being told what to do by men in church all the time. Perhaps this response is too feminist, but this is based on my experiences of christianity, I’m sick of women being second class in churches — Iris Murdoch says, “I think being a woman is like being Irish… Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time” — and I don’t suppose Angela Carter found it necessary to be a christian either.

      The reason I brought up Waugh was because I’m tired of male authors being praised for writing about certain themes that in the hands of a woman is condemned as trivial. Rosamond Lehmann also wrote about an affair in The Weather in the Streets, which was sometimes denigrated, while the same topic in the hands of Graham Greene (End of the Affair) is praised, but Lehmann is speaking to female experience and her voice is necessary. Lehmann doesn’t offer religion as an option, because as I said, it’s not really as good of an option for women. (See Barbara Pym’s depictions of clergymen’s daughters, ‘excellent women’ who know how to serve others and don’t have a life of their own, again, that’s closer to the mark of my christian experience.) Sorry to be so blunt, but until christianity deals with its sexism and gives equal voice and representation to women, I can’t see that it’s very much about grace rather than power.

      • Elizabeth Roberts says:

        Oh, I love Barbara Pym and Rosamund Lehmann too. I am not defending the church, just Christianity. And Patti Smith was quite wonderful at the concert on Sat – I had no idea she was such a fervent believer. How cool is that.

      • bookssnob says:

        Carolyn, perhaps, if you feel up to it, you should read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home. Her perspective of Christianity is beautiful and full of grace.

        I know you have suffered at the hands of Christians and I am so sorry for that. But we’re not all the same, and TRUE Christianity is not inherently sexist or cruel or obsessed with power. Some Christians are, sure, but not Christianity itself. It makes me so sad when people have been so burned by Christians in churches that are not following the true teachings of the Bible and are lacking grace, humility, compassion, and love, that they end up thinking all Christians are awful people and that Christianity is a repressive, false and damaging religion. It doesn’t have to be like that, and I am just sorry that your experiences now make you unable to see the beauty and grace and wonder in Christianity, that authors like Marilynne Robinson, C S Lewis, Graham Greene, and others like them, express. If you are interested in getting another view of Christianity, I really would urge you to read Marilynne Robinson. Her depiction of grace, and forgiveness, and redemption, and love, is just breathtaking in its compassion and wisdom. It might give you some faith that not all Christians are like those you have known in the past. I hope it does.

        Also, as you don’t find Waugh or Delafield particularly funny, I really think it is an issue with the British sense of humour not crossing the cultural divide. They’re not supposed to be depressing books, honest! British people like writing about how ‘awful’ their lives are and being mercilessly satirical, putting themselves and others down in the process. It’s just the British way. I get blank faces here all the time when I try and make a joke, or when I put myself down, people say ‘oh you shouldn’t say that about yourself!’ and I am thinking ‘but it’s ok – I’m fine with being rubbish at X’ but Americans are so used to the self promoting, cheery, can do spirit that is so inherent in American culture that they just don’t get why you’d want to admit fault in yourself. So…it’s a cultural divide issue. You’re not alone – but maybe if you spend more time with British people, you’ll pick up more of our sense of humour, and then you’ll suddenly have a lightbulb moment and start adoring E M Delafield – I hope so!

        • Carolyn says:

          I know you mean well, but I’m not really interested in discussing christianity on my blog, especially when I live so near to my crazy religious mother and feel uncomfortable enough with that. Sorry.

          On the topic of humour, Canadians are somewhere between Americans and British, so I think we’re more self deprecating than Americans and also I would say not as driven or self promoting (of themselves or others) as they are, Alice Munro captures it with her title ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, again, just different cultural things! Margaret Atwood says Canadian literature is all about survival, maybe on some level I’m reading E.M. Delafield (and a Shopaholic book I tried once) and worrying for her financial survival! (My dad is an accountant who hates debt.) Claire likes the Provincial Lady though, who knows.

  5. Penny says:

    A few, brief points! 🙂

    Beloved by Toni Morrison – deeply distressing in its descriptions of slavery. A book I’ll never forget, but I can understand your not reading it!

    Pat Barker – another distressing book, but glad I read it. And I usually love cosy books!

    I enjoyed your Jane Austen stuff. I joined an on-line group, only to find that one member in particular seems to spend most of his life looking for sexual undertones! I’m far from being a prude, but saying that, for example, the bit where someone says that her muslin has been dyed so much it’s beginning to tear is sexual? I really don’t think so! I MUCH preferred your analysis! 🙂

    Alan Rickman was good as Colonel Brandon (and I LOVE AR), but David Morrisey as the Colonel in the TV adaptation – WOW! I don’t see how anyone, even Marianne, could resist him!

    • Carolyn says:

      Sexual muslin! Which book is he getting this from?? Jane Austen doesn’t really seem the most likely person to use sexual metaphors…

      Yes, I liked David Morrisey too (and sort of even like that adaptation better than the movie, except I’d rather someone read me poetry than trained a falcon in front of me, just saying!) and am happy he’s going to be in the new BBC version of South Riding with Anna Maxwell Martin, who’s also fantastic.

      • Penny says:

        He finds these things in ALL of her books! The most reasonable remarks (I mean, I’ve had old dishcloths that have torn apart after much usage and washings. Haven’t we all?) are considered to be subtle sexual remarks, disguised because they wouldn’t be deemed ‘proper’.

        I’m swithering about whether to read South Riding (shocking that I haven’t yet!) first or to watch it first… Think I’ll read it. But I’ll see who the actors are and picture them while I read!

  6. Iris says:

    So much to think about and to respond to. Wow.

    Your analysis of Jane Austen, it is so interesting.

    “I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that!”


    As for Becoming Jane. I’m now ashamed to admit I actually like that movie. But I think maybe more as a love story than as a Jane Austen story. The portrayed Jane Austen truly does not fit anything you can read by and about her. I think Jane Austen Regrets might be a little better in that respect?

    I love your way of attempting to look at Austen, instead of regretting how she did not find love, looking at how it might have given her more freedom. I think the Claire Tomalin biography goes into that, especially the babies part, a little. And the changing image of Jane Austen is something that is written about in Jane’s Fame. And yet, you change it around in a way that I like better. It is more daring. But also, very much to the point in that all this imagery around Jane Austen, might very well be influenced by “male history” so to say. This is really something I’d love to think more about, and read more about!

    • Carolyn says:

      I don’t mind if you like Becoming Jane, I’m sure there are other people who do and maybe it would help them get to her books. I just don’t like it when a stereotype of an author covers up who they really are, so that people say they like Jane Austen, but what they mean is they like the movies. (Maybe that’s an elitist approach and there are good things in the movies, but not the full richness of the books.) I do have Jane Austen Regrets and have never watched it, is it good?

      I haven’t read Jane’s Fame, I like to think about her books on my own from time to time, but for some reason, don’t like reading a lot of what everyone else’s take on them is, maybe it gets to be too much after a while (especially all the fannishness) and I just want to try to develop my own opinions about her, based solely on the books. Maybe I miss out on some things that way. But I’d like to read a biography of her, someday and do own the Claire Tomalin one. And it’s nice to see you here again, Iris!

      • Iris says:

        I have been away for a while, I know. Too busy to keep up with any blogging unfortunately.

        Ah, I wish I could resist buying all the Jane Austen books that are not her novels. I can’t seem to restruct myself 🙂 I do like your approach of forming your own opinion independent of other books.

  7. Darlene says:

    Your post and everyone’s comments has made for riveting reading this morning, Carolyn!

    Jane Austen helped me raise The Heiress, albeit through film. From the age of three, we spent countless hours cuddled on the sofa, watching and commenting. She learned about wily men, kind men, patient men and icky men. Her observations about women and their lot in life were just as varied and interesting.

    And To the North by Bowen is such a fantastic read by the way! I have read so many passages twice because they are brilliant…read this one soon!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks, Darlene! That sounds like a wonderful way to grow up, I’d love to have had that kind of experience. I have gotten my mom to read most of the Austen books, but I only discovered them at 19 through a roommate and then wondered where they’d been all my life!

      That’s great, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. I read part of it last year, but for some reason (working in a library, reading blogs, always too many books I want to read) didn’t finish it then.

  8. Jillian says:

    I do think Austen was very much a feminist, in a time when being one was fairly unheard of. I read in the Tomalin biography that, late in her life, she chuckled about married people (smugly glad that she wasn’t one.)

    I think she loved Tom Lefroy — but I agree, she wasn’t all mush and nonsense. Her books have a vlear undertone — she is challenging societal rules. The books are not mere love stories. They are cloaked as such, I think, so she can speak her message. A message similar, I think, to Wollstonecraft’s…

    I love your comparison of the two photos. So true — they have altered her, washed her out.

    I’m curious now, about that book on the Brontes. It hadn’t occurred to me they, too, had been watered down by generations.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jillian, I will have to read that biography since everyone else has! I tend to avoid biographies in general, because they’re a bit slow to get going.

      She does show the discomfort and disadvantages women have to deal with, because they aren’t able to inherit property for instance, that despite the fact that the Dashwood and Bennet girls are better than the obnoxious men turning them out of their homes (or who will, eventually), they have no control.

      The Brontes were a slightly different case, from what I understand, Charlotte (who seems to have tried to control her sisters’ images as well) may have wanted them portrayed as being more saintly and suffering than they really were, just so that people wouldn’t be so offended by their shocking books. The Elizabeth Gaskell biography written after her death contributed to this idea of the Brontes, but Charlotte might have wanted it that way, to sugarcoat her books to Victorian readers. (Even Jane Eyre was pretty shocking to some.) Just as Jane Austen’s nephew did with his memoirs about her (likely without her permission though), also to a Victorian audience. It would be interesting to explore further, to see how else they were changed by different times and audiences.

      • Jillian says:

        Oh, that interesting — especially that Charlotte added to the altered image. I need to read more about this. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    oh Carolyn, a wonderful post and one I shall return to and read after a more relaxing day that today’s been – my brain is not quite able to do it justice now. I’m re reading Sense and Sensibility for book club so your thoughts are doubly pertinent. ps I’d like to try and track down a copy of Union Street and send it your way….

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you! During Virago week, someone did a good review of Sense & Sensibility, saying they thought Marianne makes her choice to marry Brandon in the end because she’s decided to devoted herself to her family and that’s what they wanted for her. It would also give security to her aging mother and young sister, to be able to marry better as well. It made more sense of the end for me, I used to feel a little sorry for Marianne before, just because he’s so much older than her and she was so lively. He may worship her, but that doesn’t always make it perfect. (I was going to add, I hope it ends well for them before remembering they aren’t real people!)

      There was a Penguin introduction I found very interesting, by Tony Tanner (I read the whole thing on amazon, near the end of the preview) about how there’s secrecy and sickness in the book. Elinor, who’s described as painting screens, also screens the behaviour of others, while Marianne’s scream for Willoughby when he has abandoned her is the emotional core of the book. Jane Austen’s intentions towards Marianne are difficult to make out, she seems to mock her romanticism, but she’s in such distress there and she’s trapped in this conventional society where unless she wants to be ostracized she has to behave. That introduction I read compared her to Cathy in Wuthering Heights, but said that Marianne was given no freedom to be that wild. (Although Cathy essentially completes the self destruction Marianne is saved from by her more prudent family.)

      Marianne is an odd character to me, she’s not portrayed quite like a heroine, as the others are, she’s seen more critically by the narrator (I read somewhere that we’re kept at more of an emotional distance from her so we see the foolishness of her actions rather than sympathizing with all of her intense feelings as much), there aren’t really two heroines in any of the other books (Jane Bennet has a much lesser role), so in a way it’s a bit of a problem book to me. Maybe Austen is only showing the realities of the time for women, that if they don’t behave, those are the results. I read it last year and was never quite sure how to write about it. So there you go, my thoughts for the book club!

      And the book offer is sweet, but I might be able to find it in a library. But if you really want to, I won’t say no!

  10. Jenny says:

    What? No love for Tilney and Catherine, indeed? I remember feeling very fond of Tilney the last time I read Northanger Abbey — which, admittedly, was ages ago. But I agree with you that Jane Austen’s heroes aren’t particularly good. Compared to, you know, Mr. Rochester. :p

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh dear. I just meant, their relationship develops very suddenly and it seems to be the author’s intervention to make it happen that quickly, just as it does with Fanny and Edmund (although that seems more unlikely because at least Catherine’s cute and fun and I’m sure Tilney enjoys teasing her! Fanny’s just a bit too boring and perfect, but then I haven’t read it in a while, I could change my mind there). I do love Tilney (don’t stop being fond of him!), he’s my personal favourite, but he’s much smarter than Catherine and they aren’t entirely equals that way — maybe he’ll help her find some better books to read. (In one of my first posts, I did write about the ways in which I could see him coming to like her though, maybe I’m contradicting myself!)

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