Mean girls 1812-style

Stop it right there. 

I just want to make it perfectly clear that I was firmly resolved not to write this blog.  Indeed, I was absolutely crystal that I was determined never to touch this subject again.  Not even so much as with a barge pole. 

In fact, for days (weeks) I have promised myself that I would not, not, not address this issue again.  

Not ever. 

But I have to say this.  I must.  (Mainly because for the past three nights I’ve been keeping myself awake with the arguments over it and I want some sleep…)

The other evening, there was a thing on the BBC about Mrs. Dickens’ Christmas, hosted by one Sue Perkins.  Which I, because I happened to have been reading all day and wanted a break, watched. 

I expected not to like it.  I was wrong.  It was fascinating. 

And among the extra-ordinary things which Perkins revealed was that Dickens treated his wife abominably.  I mean, the man was a complete ________. [Feel free to fill in the blank with your most offensive choice of language.]

Anyway, the guests included both Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer, but also a most thoughtful psychiatrist who pointed out the parallels between Dickens’ own life–where he treated his wife with such cruelty once she had borne him ten children and was middle-aged and, well, fat, and his fawning reverential treatment of younger virginal women–and the characters in his books which mirror this outlook.  Perkins used as an example of the former, Mrs. Gamp, the fat, ugly, gossipy midwife in Martin Chuzzlewit–a character which Dickens penned shortly after moving out the the marital bedroom and shortly before he broke up the family home and took the children from their mother.

I still admire Dickens’ work.  Very much so.  But despite the fact that Perkins is a foodie and a comedienne, this was serious stuff and I appreciated the rather startling insights offered into Dickens’ work.  Very very much.   

Fast backward to a couple of weeks ago, when that absolutely splendid historian, Amanda Vickery, whose research into the lives of Georgian women I admire so very much, did a programme for the BBC on Jane Austen’s current popularity.  Which, let’s face it, is pretty much a craze these days. 

Vickery explored the fall and rise of Austen’s popularity through the last two hundred years–which was fairly interesting.  Though her first novel, Sense & Sensibility had been well received in 1811 and she’d made a profit of some £250, by 1820, for example, three years after Austen’s death, her books were out of print.  The remaining copies were remaindered and sold off cheap as chips. 

The preferred authors of the 1820s were Scott and Edgeworth and Radcliffe.  And then came the Brontes and Dickens–and Charlotte Bronte’s dislike of Austen is well-known and well-documented.

But then, Austen’s great-nephew decided to bring the old dear back into fashion and he wrote a pretty saccharine Victorianised version of her life and had the portrait by her sister ‘softened’ and hey presto!  As Vickery and Professor Katheryn Sutherland remarked, “St. Jane of Chawton” was born–looking like a soft-headed, well-fed version of the rather pointed, pinched and peevish person with dark circles under her eyes as drawn by Cassandra Austen, which is the only real portrait of Austen that exists. 

But then the programme wandered off into how her popularity had built during the First World War and eventually we had Andrew Davies talking about how he’d injected the testosterone into Pride & Prejudice and how she was all about young people, etc. 

We were also treated to F.R. Leavis’s view that Austen is among the five great English novelists and that–for serious readers–must be why she’s so popular. 

(Which can only be utter crock!  Because two of the other five of Leavis’s greats are Joseph Conrad and Henry James.  And nobody, but nobody, is reading them any more.  And certainly not enjoying them.  Except possibly me.  But we’ll leave that for the moment.)

And it’s at this point I want to start shouting at the telly.  (And where I now know I want Sue Perkins…and her willingness to delve beyond the pretty.) 

Because let’s face it, five out of Austen’s six novels are tales of wish-fulfillment.  

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in this.  There isn’t.  But in every book but Emma, we have the poor or poorer heroine through her beauty, charm or wit, being lifted out of her life of penny-pinching and old-maid-hood by the handsome rich bloke who will marry her, provide well for her and treat her kindly. 

It’s what she wanted for herself.  It’s what she longed for for her sister Cassandra.  Who wouldn’t want that compared to a life of penury? 

But wait.  There’s more.

Because Austen’s novels also display a side of Regency life which is far less pleasant and far more sobering than stories of tight breeches and wet shirts.  These novels are case studies of sustained verbal and emotional abuse. 

And what’s more, they’re written from the inside. 

Take a good look at the slighting, vicious, grasping behaviour and conversation of the Ferrers women in Sense & Sensibility.  Their comments about the Dashwood girls, made in their presence, tell us emphatically, “You are poor, you are nothing.  You are dirt and you are disposable.  And I will grind you under my heel.” 

Look too at the verbal abuse meted out to Anne Elliot in Persuasion–chiefly by her sisters and father.  They’re appalling, frankly.  Cruel.  Vicious.  Heartless.  Catty.  Snobbery unconfined and unredeemable.  It’s a wonder the girl wasn’t a basket-case. 

And finally, rest your gaze on the heinous treatment Fanny Price suffers in Mansfield Park

She is slighted, demeaned, teased, nagged, harrassed, belittled, mocked, bullied, slapped, deprived.  And always, always she’s told she should be grateful for it and how lucky she is and how disobliging she is not to do exactly as is asked of her–however morally dubious the request is.  Indeed, however much Bronte might hate the comparison, I would posit that Fanny Price and Jane Eyre have more than a little in common–certainly the childhood abuse they receive at the hands of their relations.

Make no mistake, these books are Mean Girls circa 1812. 

And these scenes are so good, so genuine, there’s no way that Austen wasn’t writing from experience.  She was. 

She knew what it was to be poor, to wear the same gown three years in a row while everyone else bought new, to be slighted, sneered at, overlooked, excluded, to have to take out the ashes herself, and to be told she should be grateful for the roof over her head.

But none of this, however prevalent in her novels, is a view of Austen we want to embrace or even acknowledge somehow. 

Maybe it makes us squirm too much–the thought that someone we allegedly love and revere–the beloved Aunt Jane we all make-believe we had–should have so obviously suffered such soul-destroying unhappiness, such casual cruelty and been so little valued by those who should have supported her.

Perhaps that’s why Pride & Prejudice remains the favourite of her novels today.  Because it’s the Regency made palatable and friendly.  Because in it this theme of the utter worthlessness of a woman who lacks money is less pronounced, and those who voice such sentiments are only the flapping old trout Lady Catherine de Bourgh (clearly a figure of fun) and the Bingley sisters, who lack the edge of a Mrs. Ferrers or a Mrs. Norris. 

And with that we can be easy.  We can substitute rose-tinted Regency-dress balls for a thoughtful examination of her life and Regency England through the prism of her work.  We can look away from the scenes of recurring domestic abuse and pretend they didn’t happen and they certainly didn’t happen to dear Aunt Jane. 

But if that’s the case, then maybe we don’t really value Jane Austen at all. 

And that just plain sucks.

And now, I do vow and declare on my father’s dress military spurs, I am not going to write about Austen again.  Not for a long, long time.

Or, as Sir Thomas Wyatt once wrote, “My lute be still, for I have done.” 

With best wishes for a happy and healthy 2012…


21 comments on “Mean girls 1812-style

  1. linda collison says:

    Astute, as always.

  2. Interesting, M. M. It’s the Cinderella story isn’t it, to be rescued from a life of repression. We see it everywhere today. As the original theme came from Ancient Greece I wonder if that might have been what inspired Austen to write these stories.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, Cinderella would have emerged courtesy of Charles Perrault in 18th century France, so it was current. Though it’s the same story with a bit more blood told in Scotland as Ashpittel–“pretty fit and little fit ahint the cau’dron hides”. So it’s a story in most cultures I would have thought. And in a world where men held all the power and all the property, well, it makes absolute sense…

  3. Debra Brown says:

    Yes, the sad realities shine through. I’m not sure why Charlotte Bronte did not like her, but I am not crazy about some Bronte literature. Altogether too realistic to be pleasant before-bed reading, despite the excellent talent. I guess what I am referring to is something I never read. I am talking about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I saw the movie, shut it off for good about the time the little boy was being abused and decided it wasn’t something I wanted to enjoy, based on the movie. Please tell me it was Hollywood that drummed that part up, and I’ll read the book.

    Hubby says it is not mites or snow; it is UFOs.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I like the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But the sad fact is having seen the outtakes from the BBC filming of it, I shall never again be able to take it seriously: the death scene with Rupert Graves, ya? Where they were placing the leeches on his chest, etc? Well, as the outtakes showed, the poor bloke is exceedingly ticklish, and every time they placed a ‘leech’ on him, he’d just start laughing and crying and trying to hold it together, but he just couldn’t. And that image has remained with me…

      Confetti is another option…(it’s snow. WordPress says so.)

  4. Debra Brown says:

    Well, apparently the Thames will not freeze over as the snow does not even stick.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Too right. It’s been the second warmest winter on record this year. (Someone remind me why we pay the head of the Met office £350k when he’s the one who insisted we were in for a bitter winter…)

  5. lgilbert52 says:

    Thank you for this blog, M.M. I think you have actually uncovered the reason why so many of us re-read Jane Austen’s books. Under the pretty, romantic surface, there is so much meat and commentary-the layers keep the stories fresh. We don’t lose the romance; we learn enough to appreciate it more.

  6. Olivia Kelly says:

    What a thought provoking and interesting blog. Thank you so much for breaking your vow of Austen-less, and writing it!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Very pleased you enjoyed it. (But now I am determined to get back to work on the Battle of Leipzig and the Congress of Vienna…)

  7. Thank you for the article! I love Austen and the Brontes, finally got my husband to actually watch P&P and have so much more movies for him to watch just waiting on my shelf…and we have had some good conversations about society and behaviors of the time period, so your article fits into the theme I’ll bring up next! Also, I just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North & South (after seeing the miniseries 3 times) which brings another perspective/dimension on society of the times.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Gosh! This article seems to have struck a chord with so many readers. I’m a bit gob-smacked. Generally, you see, I think of myself as ranting at the walls…

  8. What has often struck me about Austen’s writing is how uncharitable she is toward not just the secondary characters, who, granted, might be cast in dastardly roles, but toward her protagonists too. Her versions of happily ever afters disqualify her from the ranks of romance writers (though said ranks hadn’t been invented in her day, I know), though her writing–because of its irony, mordant wit, and backhanded graciousness–is still an interesting read.

    Dickens too mocks everyone. Don’t know why bad treatment of the mother of his children should come as a surprise. Being mean humorously is still being mean.,

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, indeed! I’ve blogged about both your points. One in Pride & Prejudice is not a Romance…and then in Jane Austen was no Shrinking Violet… Oh, and in my most controversial statement about her work, Austen, the Cash Cow.

      But while we have nothing to suggest that Austen was a heinous beechtree to her nearest and dearest–which must come as a relief–there is a great deal of evidence about Dickens’ unbridled viciousness toward the wife who bore him ten children.

      • What a relief, to know I am not alone in my qualified respect for the lady and her work! Thanks!

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ha ha ha. You’re certainly not alone. I rant about such things privately far too often–at which point, I’m threatened with having my laptop taken away because it only makes me cross (it is alleged) and sent back to my books on Castlereagh and the Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna…

  9. Nancy says:

    What abuse do you claim Jane suffered? and by whom? I think you said that the scenes of fanny being humiliated rang so true Jane must have suffered likewise. By whom? She was a genius and had great insight into the psychology of people. I don’t think she need have been treated badly to create the scenes.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’m not claiming that Austen was specifically abused by anyone. That is to say, I can’t name names, though I’ll wager that Tom Lefroy’s auntie was a mean bit and could dish it out.

      However, writers all project into their characters elements of themselves, of their experiences, of their hopes and fears. Anybody who tells you different is lying or being coy. It may not be into the characters one would expect them to be identifying with, but it’s always there. But neither do I believe genius renders a writer or an artist immune to this expression of one’s humanity. Beethoven’s works grew out of his experience, not just despite his deafness (and he was severely abused as a child by his drunken father).

      My point is that her scenes of verbal abuse (and I use the term in its current definition) and bullying ring so true, so from the heart, they are so raw, that I don’t see how they can be other than something either she or her sister experienced–the pain is too intimate. And she, I believe,(and I applaud her for this!) wanted to bring this societal wrong to the surface and expose it for what it was.

      Her mother wasn’t a barrel of laughs either–from all accounts…

      Glad you liked the blog.

  10. Nancy says:

    Meant to add, I really enjoyed the blog.

  11. […] Read my other posts about Jane Austen, Austen – the Cash Cow and Mean Girls 1812-style… […]

  12. Jan says:

    Commenting late on this as on other topics.

    Yeah, maybe it was growing up with an English teacher (which is kind of the literary equivalent of growing up in a knacker’s yard :-), but I never bought into the “Jane Austen as romantic novelist” school of thought. I’ve always thought of her work as intended to be either overtly or subversively satirical and mocking toward the “sigh and pine” school of romantic and Gothic novels.

    And I agree. It’s not definitive, but it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the experiences of her characters reflect at least part of her own experience growing up and living in a society where a good marriage was the sole principal contribution a woman could make to her own and her family’s stability. And where female society of a certain class, blocked from so much creative and constructive activity and often without a whole lot of contact with the wider world, could certainly be prone to a very unpleasant sort of bile.

    That’s very sad intelligence about Dickens and his behaviour towards his wife. I fear that writers, like actors, are people we need to appreciate for their talent, while accepting that we may not like them as people. Though I would disagree with some of the comments included in last night’s NPR piece about Nabokov–understanding what an artist’s life was (is) like can surely never restrict or take away from an appreciation of their work; it can only deepen it.

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