Jane Austen & the bad girls

Midsummer | Leonie Adams

This starbreak is celestial air
Just silver; earthlight, dying amber.
Underneath an arch of pallor
Summer keeps her brightened chamber.

Bright beauty of the risen dust
And deep flood-mark of beauty pressed
Up from earth in lovely flower,
High against my lonely breast;

Only before the waters fall
Is Paradise shore for gaining now.
The grasses drink the berry-bright dew;
The small fruits jewel all the bough.

Heartbreaking summer beyond taste,
Ripeness and frost are soon to know;
But might such color hold the west,
And time, and time, be honey-slow!

It’s not midsummer anymore and I’m already beginning to see the traces of autumn in the trees, unfortunately, which is why the last line, begging time to move slowly, was in mind today. And also because I’m moving in a week and there still seems so much to do!

I’ve packed up most of my books (though I made the grave error of thinking I could do without Jane Austen and Harry Potter and other comfy favourites during this stressful time and had already boxed them up! Luckily I’d labeled the boxes when I needed to raid them… a move is never a good time to try Anna Karenina for a little light reading!) and today got about half (or a third, he has a real mountain of them, more than me) of my husband’s books packed up too. My husband can’t help with the move much at all, since he’s got an open wound in his stomach that we’re hoping will heal up soon or the doctor thinks he may need a skin graft… and I have an old foot injury that’s been hurting again. So I am panicking a bit, although hopefully everything goes smoothly.

I watched the Pride & Prejudice mini-series today and that was soothing while I packed. I’d been telling myself that Jane Austen is just moralizing wish-fulfillment for passive good girls (sanitized Regency-era Disney fairy tales) and that I ought to read other, more modern things, so last night I tried a few of Chuck Klosterman’s ‘low culture’ essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and while some of them were insightful — he writes about the concept of ‘fake love,’ where people get their ideas and expectations of love from movies and music and so are never satisfied when the real thing comes around — overall they were too cynical and just meaningless and left me in a grumpy mood. But sometimes, when the opening lines of Persuasion make you cheer up after other books just make you feel worse, then Jane Austen it is.

I began to think today that some of Austen’s scheming bad girls actually end up doing ok, especially the manipulative Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility who marries more money than the saintly Elinor in the end! Austen supposedly offers the reader two choices: Marianne’s doomed wild passion or Elinor’s dutiful, slightly dull common-sense. Both women marry respectable good men who can provide for them in the end, even if they too are a bit dull (although interestingly Marianne’s censured romantic and unconventional behaviour gets her the richer husband than her sister’s who always does the right thing and loses his inheritance over it). But there is a third marriage at the end of the book, a third young woman who’s been scheming for a husband and takes action to look after herself, although she’s poorer and less accomplished than either of the Dashwood girls. As a rector’s daughter Austen of course couldn’t officially condone such behaviour, but I’m sure she was highly amused while creating such outrageous strong-willed women like Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Elton, Isabella Thorpe, and Lucy Steele, who won’t take no for an answer!

Come to think of it, Jane Austen herself had to be rebellious enough to write and to believe in her writing enough to persevere to get it published and to reject a comfortable but loveless marriage. She valued her self-actualizing independent CAREER! She sought money for her work, something most respectable women (certainly not middle-class clergymen’s daughters hidden away in the country, famous women writers before her like Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney had exciting public lives, Behn as a government spy who also wrote a novel exposing slavery and Burney as a member of George III’s court and a friend of many famous writers, among other things!) didn’t do then. Even the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire dabbled in writing, but never pursued it single-mindedly as its own end. Most women with a talent in the arts only saw it as a hobby, a pretty little accomplishment to boost them up on the marriage market. (Austen makes fun of Mrs. Elton for saying she’ll give up music now that she’s married, now that its use is fulfilled.) She must have felt that entertaining herself and other women with her stories wasn’t just a cutesy grab a husband side-show, it had worth and meaning and serious artistic merit. Even if she didn’t have any famous male writers encouraging her or any other writer friends at all. She put value in what she accomplished with her brains, she wasn’t willing to be an unpaid slave wife and mother, forever pregnant like her own mother or diddling about with embroidery like empty-headed Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park. Even while living with her family who thought one of her brothers should be the famous writer. And her early teenaged writings are quite saucy and unconventional, even including an anti-heroine mother in Lady Susan… which I might have to read now!

Growing up with a mother who is obsessed with studying the bible, I inadvertently learned to read literature very closely, to read between the lines, to consider context, time period and the language it was first written in. I also inadvertently learned to study what I read for a useful moral lesson, a guide on how to live my life. I tend to pass judgment on books based on whether or not I approved of the ideas they seemed to promote, I find it hard to read something just to enjoy the story, language and characters alone. If a book is too dark (even if, my husband the horror fan points out, it also has its own dark morality), I tend to feel quite uncomfortable.

So for a long time, even since leaving chrisitianity, I have seen Jane Austen as my moral compass through life, reading her closely for instructions on how to be a good person and how to have good relationships with others. She’s especially good at the friendships between women, sisters, mothers and daughters, older women who mentor younger ones (or try to), friends, frenemies… there’s often an unequal balance, with one woman trying to exploit her superiority over the other. This fascinated me because I’ve often experienced it in my own life, starting with my mother and in the past moving on to some of my friendships. I’ve looked to Jane Austen to show the balance of how to mature in order to be a better friend, but also the signs to look for in who is a good friend to confide in.

That said, I don’t always want to be the good girl who only reads Jane Austen! I want to read a broader range of women and men to learn other perspectives about love and sex and relationships and life. Occasionally I want to feel liberated and read about bad girls who don’t do everything right and yet are still ok in the end. As mentioned in my last post, Colette is my newest discovery who is great at this. But there have to be more women writing about bad girls (who don’t die off or get punished either!) or just independent girls who don’t stay home and wait around for life to happen to them! Or women in healthy relationships who also manage to have an independent strong sense of self?? I love reading about love and romance and all that (I am married after all, I don’t demand that women must always shun men and go off on their own to be fully self-actualized), but I also need to know that it’s ok to not be perfect all the time. I have to know that my needs are important too, even if my husband is having three surgeries this summer. I can’t always live by the Jane Austen rules (I’m just not self-sacrificing Elinor Dashwood hiding my feelings to hold my family together!) — unless they are the Jane Austen writing rules of having faith in my words, my voice, my ideas, my sense of humour, my stories, even if they’re unconventional — I am my own person with my own story to live and my own stories to write.

So, recommendations for books about (non-self-destructive) bad girls? I just started thinking about Gone With the Wind‘s indomitable Scarlett O’Hara and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I’ve heard is a great feminist teen book, and there’s Vanity Fair too with notorious social climber Becky Sharp. And funny girls too, why is it girls aren’t supposed to be as funny as boys? I certainly enjoy being funny and doing more than just listening to men tell jokes. Jane Austen embraced her sense of humour instead of hiding it and used it very pointedly. (I’m beginning to remember a previous rant about why aren’t there any books with adventurous girls too!) Perhaps I’ll be back at the library soon, even though I once had the silly idea of not reading much while I was busy moving… at any rate, getting a new library card in our new city will be a top priority!

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16 thoughts on “Jane Austen & the bad girls

  1. irisonbooks says:

    “That said, I don't always want to be the good girl who only reads Jane Austen! I want to read a broader range of women and men to learn other perspectives about love and sex and relationships and life.”

    Me too. We should set up our own challenge. Though I hate to think not being able to turn to Austen for comfort in the upcoming 6 months 🙂

    I really liked your observations on how the scheming girls never truly end up very bad. I think Austen's moralising is often subtle.

  2. Darlene says:

    All the best with your upcoming move! I work at a library and always smile when someone arrives wanting to sign up for a library card…and they moved to Burlington only the day before. That we are there first stop in the community says a lot.

    As for Austen. When my daughter was a tween I would regularly say to her “Be an Elizabeth, not a Lydia”. She knew that meant to stand back and think about things first before jumping in and things usually turn out for the better. How Jane would laugh to know that she was a parenting tool these many years later!

    Enjoy your reading, wherever it takes you.

  3. thecaptivereader says:

    There are online quizes to determine which Jane Austen heroine you are but are there ones to determine which anti-heroine you most resemble? There is something just a bit delicious in wondering if you are an Isabella Thorpe or a Caroline Bingley, a Lucy Steele or a Mary Crawford.

    As for recommendations, I know you've just started reading Colette and think the Claudine novels might suit you quite well right now. Also, Lauren Willig's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose has a protagonist who, if not quite bad, certainly isn't good enough to qualify as a typical heroine.

  4. bookssnob says:

    I don't think of Jane Austen heroines as good girls. I think of them as intelligent, sensible, morally strong women who know what they want and have the strength and will to hold out for what is good and right. There is nothing wrong with that. I actually think there is a lot more bravery, adventure and daring in being prepared to do what is right, because doing what is right is often the hardest and most personally sacrificing course to take. We all would love to run off into the sunset and ignore our responsibilities and fall into the arms of a dashing rake and worry about the consequences later, but those are the easy options that require no patience, no strength of character and no willpower. The silly, scheming girls in Austen's novels put THEMSELVES first and suit themselves in everything they do. They are inherently selfish and will never have the richness of the life Austen's true heroine's do. They might still end up married, but have they the love and respect of their friends and family members? No. Do they have an appreciation of their husband and a desire to form a partnership with him? No – they just want his money/status. Their lives will always be shallow and empty, and the sad thing is, they probably will never even realise that their lives are so.

    It is fun to be bad and to fight against the status quo, and I 100% advocate that – but not when it hurts other people in the process, which everyone who goes down that path in Austen's novels certainly does.

    I wish you luck with the move and also am hoping very much that T recovers quickly and doesn't have to have any further surgeries.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Hi Iris! I'm going to be pretty busy for a while, so I won't be able to do a reading challenge now, but maybe someday. I'm making a list for myself of strong, confident, funny, sexy women who break the rules though, in a healthy way. I think Jane Austen still has a place in there. Any woman who has the guts to believe in herself does.

    Darlene, yes I usually get a library card first thing after a move. It helps me feel settled in a new city.

    The thing I'm beginning to think about Lydia though is that she does have some positive traits — she has a lot of energy, she's a natural leader, she draws people to her, she always enjoys life and she jumps fully into things in a carpe diem way, she's not half-hearted (or whiny like Kitty!). She knows what she wants. Yes, she's also silly and young but luckily nowadays, sleeping around and even marrying the wrong man isn't a crime. She's not even manipulative like some of Austen's anti-heroines, she does actually love Wickham and even plans to marry him.

    Sometimes it's good to have experiences, make mistakes and learn from them, rather than always standing on the sidelines and never living. Of course Elizabeth is a great role model too, but in my fear to never make a mistake in life I never enjoyed myself very much for years while I was in university, I just worked hard to get good grades, and became very depressed. Which overthinking everything can do! So strip off Lydia's foolish flaws and she's not all bad. Are we to closet and judge the sexual energy of all young silly girls, why not just point them in an exciting and useful direction that they're passionate about, like the start of a career she enjoys. I have a cousin I always judged (ahem, was jealous of) for being too popular and fashionable, but she's got a job as a music events promoter and she's responsible and has fun. She doesn't intend to marry, but why should she have to? If Lydia had been given more guidance and attention from her dad say (maybe this is why she acts out, because he ignores her? Her older sisters don't seem to bother trying to be her friends either) maybe she wouldn't have turned out so badly. She also lives in a very isolated community with nothing to do but trim bonnets and go for long walks. Teens stuck in small country towns now tend to take a lot of drugs and worse, just to put her misdemeanors into perspective. Maybe she wouldn't have misbehaved if she'd had a better way to channel all her energy. Just some thoughts!

    But I've never raised kids myself and I certainly don't mean to criticize, I'm just thinking this through for myself. I'm sure you've been a great mom thanks to Jane, from waht you've written your daughter sounds like a great person who's happily pursuing what she wants.

  6. Carolyn says:

    Claire, yes, where are the bad girl quizzes! I did a bit of googling today for that sort of thing and didn't see anything, maybe we can make one up together! I'm fond of Caroline Bingley myself, just because my name is so similar to her's, after I first watched the miniseries with some friends, one of them kept calling me Caroline Bingley for quite a while! I later wrote a character in my novel who was partly inspired by her and had a lot of fun with it. (I mentioned her to my husband today and he's like, isn't she the sexy one in the movie? Show boys a bad girl and they may not mind. ;))

    And I forgot about Mary Crawford, I was thinking Maria Rushworth is the only bad girl in Mansfield Park and she's just spoiled, selfish, mean and not much fun, but Mary does have personality and charm (and again, she genuinely loves Edmund). I've always enjoyed Mary's joke about 'rears and vices' in the navy, even if could be taken in a rather naughty way! I'm interested in the Claudine novels, I'll have to track them down eventually. And I stopped reading Lauren Willig earlier this year at the third book, so I think the Crimson Rose is up next, whenever I go back to the series, that's something to look forward to! (It's Mary right, the one Geoff wanted to marry? Didn't you say she ends up with the dude with the hilarious black and silver outfits? He's trying to be all bad and mysterious and just makes me laugh.)

    When I was googling Jane Austen anti-heroines today, I came across some interesting blog posts by romance writers and readers about strong female characters they enjoy, some people included Emma!

  7. Carolyn says:

    Rachel, the thing though is that every female writer or artist or politician, etc has to put THEMSELVES first to succeed! They can't expect others to do that for them — who would have published the Bronte sisters if Charlotte hadn't insisted on it? It's about being an adult and taking responsibility for yourself, to meet your own needs. (Even young mothers have to put themselves first sometimes so they don't go insane! As the wife of someone with a chronic illness I used to think I had to be the perfect cure for all his problems, but that doesn't help. Caring too much for others makes them helpless and you frustrated.) I'm sure Jane Austen's mother probably told her she was selfish for not marrying and so depending on her family to support her!

    And how is being a strong, sexually confident, determined, ambitious woman who has her own plans and dreams in life so wrong? Men simply call this having 'balls', they don't judge it as being right or wrong. Women judge themselves and each other's behaviour far too much. I'm not advocating hurting anyone either, or being trashy or an abusive mother or breaking the law, I'm saying that women don't need to be martyred mothers and wives and caretakers, they have their own lives and choices that are just as important. Urging women to think and live for themselves is what feminism is about.

    I'm saying I don't see Austen's anti-heroines as all bad, as I mentioned above with Lydia, they have some good qualities if you look between the lines and learn from their mistakes. I started dating my husband when I stopped living only in my head and seeing myself as the nice girl, the platonic friend, the caretaker, and started being a bit more sexy, a bit more flirtatious, I stopped hiding myself. I didn't get drunk and sleep around, but I felt confident in myself and for the first time, someone I liked actually noticed me back! And as I mentioned above, I learned how to be more sexually sure of myself from Caroline Bingley, in part! She's a great bitch, but she's not a monster. Austen's heroines only get their perfect endings because it's a fantasy, just a story. (I've always thought that if she had to, Jane Bennet would have been dutiful enough to marry Mr. Collins and I doubt that would have made her life wonderful. At least Elizabeth is selfish enough to turn down his offer!) In real life, the good are not always so well rewarded. I've heard that in Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, the women who are too nice and motherly and self-sacrificing aren't even attractive to men who would rather marry someone sexier and still alive and thinking for herself.

  8. Carolyn says:

    Still continuing on from my previous comment…

    It's important to be balanced, only caring about romance and men is unhealthy, but then being too caught up in staying at home caring for others can be unhealthy too, if it makes you unhappy and unfulfilled. Both things are actually focused on others. If those Austen bad girls had a chance to truly live their own lives, make their own choices without having to marry, and could pursue careers, they might have been fine! Who's to say Lydia Bennet wouldn't have loved her life if she could have been an actress?! Colette had to go on the stage after she left her first husband who was mean to her and she had two more husbands and other lovers after that, but her writing was always important to her. Are you saying she was shallow and empty, unhappy and unfulfilled because she wasn't a self-sacrificing perfectly well behaved model wife? She wanted more in life and she got it, she supported herself. She worked hard at her writing, she wasn't expecting a sunset and a rake to make her life better either. Her experiences only give a richness and depth to her more sexual writing that Jane Austen's lacks. Different people want to live their lives in different ways, they want different things, but that doesn't always make them bad, if extrovert Lydia would rather have fun than sit at home all her life. She's just different and luckily women now have the ability to make their own choices.

    Have you read Chocolat by Joanne Harris? It's a positive portrayal of how a healthy amount of decadence and indulgence in life can be a very good thing and how denying yourself too often can lead to unhealthy extremes.

    I'm sorry if I've overreacted or misread your comment, this topic just means a lot to me because I'm still figuring it out for myself, having been trapped in the good girl performance cycle, where supposedly if I am 'good enough' then someone else will make things all better. I want to learn how to work for my own happiness, instead of always expecting a man or my mother, whoever, to make it better. But I find inspiration for this in the bad girls, because I've had too much extreme be good or else moralizing preached at me. My mom didn't even want me to ever be bossy as the oldest, because it just wasn't very nice. Then when I went to be a teacher (again my mom's idea) I had no backbone or confidence to run the class and be in control, let alone to pick a career that I'd be happier in. I was trying to be what I thought was god's idea of a good woman by being a teacher!

    I do see the value of Jane Austen's heroines (especially saucy Elizabeth, opinionated Emma and imaginative Catherine, they at least are entertaining and even Fanny in Mansfield rebels against her uncle instead of dutifully going against her own heart), it's good for everyone to grow up and we all have weaknesses that it's good to understand. But at the same time, we all have strengths as women too and why not celebrate them instead of only seeing the bad in ourselves and others? And we no longer need to be so passive to wait for a good life to come to us is my point. Good men don't always automatically rush to rescue us. I know marriage and so forth require compromise and that love is unselfish, but that doesn't mean women can't be just as successful and focused on a career as men. Being a bitch to accomplish something personally meaningful is worthwhile too, I think. (I stopped writing after I got married, thinking I had to be completely devoted to my husband's needs. Not the way to make me happy, but at the time I thought it was what everyone expected of me. I'm now trying to motivate myself to be 'selfish' enough to return to it, is what all this is about!) And that will probably make us/me happier, with less time for escapist fantasies!

    Ok, enough.

  9. bookssnob says:

    Oh I think there's a big difference between being a martyr and choosing to think about other people alongside your own needs – none of Austen's heroines are passive martyrs.

    All of Austen's heroines are three dimensional, funny, intelligent, forward thinking, independent women. They don't sit back and wait for life to come to them. Just because they choose to look to others before themselves does not make them oppressed or trapped in a 'good girl' role.

    I am highly independent and adventurous, confident and sexually assured. Most of the time I do exactly as I please and what makes me happy. However, whenever a decision I have to make affects someone else, I always put them first. It's not about being a woman or about being passive or about being a 'good girl', it's about doing the right thing. For example, if I want to go out dancing but my sister, who is exhausted from looking after her kids, has asked me to babysit so she can have a night out with her husband, then I will give up my night out dancing to babysit for her. That's the kind of thing Austen heroines do – and you know what, doing something nice for my sister makes me feel just as good as going out dancing would!

    I don't see martyrs in Austen's novels – I see women who are making independent lives for themselves in the best ways they see fit. If they choose, for a period, to put their wishes aside to help family members who need them, or to deny themselves something they believe would not be right, then that's their decision – they have had a choice.

    I think Austen's strongest message for women is that ultimately happiness and fulfilment lies in being true to yourself. And I would say that's the golden rule of life – you have to do what is right for you and what makes you happy. Putting yourself last as a woman is a very fundamentalist Christian mindset that I heartily disagree with and I don't think Austen supports that view at all in her characters. I'm sorry you've been told for so long that being 'good' is about being 'last' in the pecking order – that couldn't be further from the truth. In order to be a happy, productive and positive influence on others, you have to be able to pursue your own life and interests – so go, write!

    Instead of reading novels, what about looking to some real life women for inspiration? Sometimes novels aren't the best place to look as they set up rather unrealistic expectations!

  10. Carolyn says:

    Obviously we are simply coming at this from different angles, I've had an abusive background and you've had a normal happy one. (You've been able to choose your faith of your own free will, while I had it forced on me.) I can understand your points, but I'm not talking about Austen characters so much as life and my experiences in it, which are different from yours. Being married is not at all the same as occasionally helping someone out when you're single, it's a constant balance of who chooses and who compromises, of making joint decisions. I understand that, but at this point in your life you actually have a lot more free choice to do whatever you want than I do. I find inspiration to be stronger in a life I find pretty difficult at times, because I still deal with ongoing depression, in the bad girls and you do not, let's just agree to disagree and leave it at that, shall we? At this point it feels like it's turning into an pointless advice giving session. There's no need to tell me how I should feel or what I should do, we're at different stages of life.

  11. bookssnob says:

    Carolyn, I most certainly wasn't attempting to tell you how you should feel or what you should do. I was simply discussing my impression of 'good' Austen characters and how I relate them to my own life…but I apologise if I came across as trying to tell you what to do, as I certainly wasn't attempting to do that and can't really understand how that could have been interpreted from what I said. I was simply trying to debate the issue of what a 'good' girl means, and wasn't making it personal to you at all, but I see my thoughts have just caused you upset, so I apologise and I'll make my retreat now, and won't darken your door again! Hope all goes well with your move and your plans for the year – I wish you all the best and your husband too.

  12. Carolyn says:

    Rachel, I've been very stressed out lately (and for a long time), with moving in two days now and having a sick husband, so I'm doing all the work. So I'm in a pretty emotional state and tend to get oversensitive and angry easily. I apologize if I was rude, but this really hasn't been the best time for me to debate literature, or whatever it is we've been debating. I wrote this post as a way to relax and destress, off the top of my head. I took your comments as a personal attack, as if you were saying I had to live as an Austen heroine and wouldn't be happy any other way, and felt confused by them, to me they sounded anti-feminist, as if you were advocating that all women (including me) simply stay in their happy homes and do what others want all the time. I'm sensitive to criticism and probably misread what you wrote though, easily since I live with a very christian mother who's often trying to push her agenda on me, it's what I felt you were doing as well. I don't want to continue the discussion at this time, as it's just been making me more upset. But I hope we can still be friends.

  13. Karen K. says:

    I just finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I just loved. She has some good strong female characters– I also loved Wives & Daughters. And Lady Susan is a really interesting anti-heroine, one of Austen's best villains.

  14. ravingreader says:

    You asked about books with strong female characters: one book I turn to again and again is called 500 Great Books by Women – Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen and Holly Smith. A great selection of female authors from all over the world and over a wide span of time. It's really fun to just pick this book up and see what pops out at you. Plus I haven't yet had a bad read from one of its recommendations… you might get some good ideas from that…

  15. Carolyn says:

    Karen, the most interesting character in Wives & Daughters to me is Cynthia, who could have been portrayed simplistically as a 'bad girl', but I love how Gaskell gives her depth by showing her backstory. How her father died and her vain and competitive mother essentially abandoned her while she was a teen. She provides a very interesting foil to the too innocent Molly and helps her to grow up, instead of remaining daddy's little girl forever.

    I find North & South very comforting because it shows Margaret going through a very difficult time and the active steps she takes to hold her family together. She is a very moral person, but she doesn't hide from the world and judge its people and problems from the distance of convention, she gets involved, tries to help and definitely wins my respect that way. It also shows her slowly blossoming from someone who rejects sex instantly (through the offers of marriage) to someone who finds she has sexual feelings for another. Mr. Thornton is tough and active as well, not idealistic or a 'perfect gentleman' but practical. Austen presents a very narrow social circle (who tend to do a lot of sitting around and subtly critiquing each other), while Gaskell gives us a whole city here, with high and low and middle class characters who must all learn to get along. Gaskell doesn't take sides in the rich vs. poor debate, she shows empathy to all, because the city rises and falls together, and must continue to co-exist in harmony to survive. Here Margaret will have to learn to live with a difficult mother-in-law at the end of the story, rather than being able to escape all family problems through a rich and sunny storybook ending, as Austen's characters tend to do. The book also seems more comfortable with genuine emotion than Austen typically is.

    Thanks for the great recommendation, Raving Reader! I'll be sure to go check out your blog. 🙂

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