A short story…

This was written by a 13-year old of my acquaintance, and I thought it was rather fabulous and wanted to share it.  I trust you’ll enjoy it as I did.

Princess of the Flames

I knew that he had no idea how I had got out again.

He had done everything: bolted the door, taken down the ladder, locked the windows, and yet he still discovered that I had some means of escape when he left for town and saw me there.  I shouldn’t have run when I saw him. He wouldn’t have taken any notice of me then.  

Once I knew he had seen me I did not run any farther – I knew it would have been useless and he would have caught me eventually.  In fact, all it would have done was madden him, and he had little sanity anyway.  So I just turned, and stopped, and let him snarl at me the whole way back to the house he was keeping me in.  However, once I had sat down on the cold, hard ground next to the fireplace, my cooperation lost existence.

I could feel him looking at me from the back, but no matter how persistent the feeling of someone staring at me was, I continued gazing into the happy, dancing flames.

“How did you escape?” His gravelly voice broke into the still silence.

I turned to him then, my eyes pummeling straight into his, which were colder than the snow outside and more loveless than his heart.  No words escaped my lips.  I knew what would happen if they did.  And it would end in me washing my blood from my face.  But I did not cry either.  I just kept my face as still and smooth as ice, showing no fear in my expression.

He smiled a sickly smile at me.  Is that meant to be reassuring?

“Tasia, if you want any food any time soon, you’d better tell me how you got out.”  I could tell by the tone in his voice that he didn’t plan on letting me get away with not telling him.

Don’t speak, DON’T SPEAK!  “Why do you keep me here?”  I swore and spat at myself in my mind, wishing, hoping and praying that he wouldn’t hit me again.

Once again the sticky-sweet smile was plastered into his features, and he was very calm – surprisingly so – in his reply. “Why, because when they realize that the princess is missing,” he chuckled as I grimaced at the title, “they will surely pay a high price to get their lost princess back.”

“But I wasn’t lost!” I yelled, knowing that I was giving him what he wanted by showing anger at his remarks.  “I ran away! I…” I sighed, “I could have been happy.  I could’ve been free, my own person.  Whoever I wanted me to be.  I could’ve – no, I would’ve – climbed mountains, ridden on clouds, touched stars.  But even running didn’t bring me freedom.  It brought me to you,” I spat.

His smile dripped off his face, and he suddenly got a look in his eyes that could send the bravest of men to his grave.

But I was no man, cowardly or otherwise, and I knew what was coming.  And as his hand quickly swung towards my head, I swiftly grabbed his arm, and used the force and energy that he had used to try to hit me against him, and dragged him in one quick movement into the fire, head first.

He leapt back almost as quickly as he had gone in, and after leaping about to put out the fire on his head, he yelled after me as I ran out of the room, “One day, you spawn of Satan, I will kill you.”


The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to “Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?” is “Not very well really…I wake up at about four and…”]


Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer’s works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I’m guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other…And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, “Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?”]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer’s first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

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…


This afternoon, I went across county boundaries to visit Uppark–a large and very beautiful house in West Sussex–home for centuries of the Featherstonehaugh (that’s pronounced Feather-stone-how according to the curator) family and now owned and managed by the National Trust. 

And among the interesting facts I discovered whilst there was this:  the Prince Regent visited his friend, the youthful owner, Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, there in 1784.

His stay lasted three days, during which time he and his host and the other guests partied, ate splendidly and played cards.

And among the entertainments over the course of that three days was none other, allegedly, than that of a teen-aged Miss Emma Hart (then the mistress of Sir Harry) dancing naked one evening on the dining room table.  Continue reading

Reassessing Jane Eyre…

Now, yes, I do know that this isn’t in my area of historical expertise.  Not by a long chalk. 

It’s just that at the moment, I’ve been thinking about Christian symbolism in novels, and the sad fact that in post-Christian, politically-correct Britain, it is most unlikely that a student of literature will have been taught enough about Christianity to be able to even guess at the Christian symbolism of a novel like Jane Eyre, nor indeed to guess at the shock and impact it would have had upon the profoundly Christian society in which Charlotte Bronte was writing.

And I find it tragic that because of general ignorance, a novel which challenged and shocked the very core of Victorian society’s concepts of marriage and morality, should be relegated to ‘just another romance’ for costume-drama hungry television viewers. 

For this is to minimise the outstanding contribution and achievement of the author in what was a fairly misogynistic era. 

However, it’s all there, in black and white.  Because Bronte sets out for the audience two upside-down versions of expected wisdom. 

Yes, we all know that Edward Rochester is a bad man.  He attempts to marry Miss Eyre when he already has a wife–albeit a mad one–locked in the attic.  So, he’s a wannabe bigamist.  And when Jane Eyre discovers the identity of the madwoman in the attic and says she must leave, Rochester begs her to live with him in the south of France.  

Yet here’s the corker–even though the reader knows this is wrong, and the Victorian reader would have known it to be an unpardonable sin which would lead to disgrace and damnation–still, because Rochester loves her with such passion, the reader is urging Jane to forget her ideas of sin, and to go with him.  And this makes the reader culpable.  Which may not shock us much today–but 150 years ago?  Holy wow. 

(Note also, that despite his alleged badness of character, despite the fact that he was entrapped by her and his and her family, Rochester has not despitefully used her, but he has always looked after this madwoman with the greatest care for her safety and well-being.  See Luke 6: 27-28.) 

However, Jane Eyre does flee, thus enabling Bronte to set up another potential marital situation.  This time with Jane’s Eyre’s cousin, St. John Rivers. 

I am convinced that Bronte was being bitterly ironic in naming this character St. John, because despite his status as a clergyman, as a reformer pioneering education, and his determination to be a missionary, there is one part of the Scriptures which St. John Rivers obviously never encountered–the first epistle of St. John (after whom he was named).  Specifically I John 4:  “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” 

Because St. John Rivers is cold as ice and this he regards as a virtue. 

And when he is urging Jane Eyre to marry him without even the least spark of affection for her, it becomes impossible to regard this as anything other than legalised prostitution. 

Jane is offered the opportunity to marry him, to have him use her body and to bear his children, all without any vestige of affection.  But at least it will be legally and morally proper, and blessed by the church.  How can she say no?

And again, the reader is made culpable–we see that this clergyman who mouths the finest of Christian sentiments is a hypocrite, the most selfish of beings and that he should be shunned. 

Pretty strong stuff from a clergyman’s daughter.

Throughout the novel, Bronte presents the reader with parallels, the seemingly good and religious as opposed to the inwardly good.  There is the difference of care given to the two orphans:  Jane Eyre, herself, at the hands of her aunt, Mrs. Reed, and Mr. Brocklehurst (also a clergyman), and Adele, Mr. Rochester’s ward, for whom Jane Eyre acts as governess, for example. 

It may very well be that Charlotte Bronte could not publish under her own name because of the Victorian publishing world’s misogyny.  Or it may also be that it was one way that this clergyman’s daughter could publish a novel which overturned all received wisdom and moral guidance and threw out the moral question which shocked the age, “Which is better?” 

Because the answer to that question was never in doubt.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programme:  Dinner with Mrs. Radcliffe…Ha ha ha.

Pride and Prejudice is not a romance…

Righto.  Since I managed to get people talking and thinking with my last post on sex in novels, I think it’s time to stir things up a bit more.  But with a different contigent. 

So all you sigh-ers over Mr.  Darcy, get those missiles ready.

Pride and Prejudice is not a romance.  Nor is it Romantic, either in the literary sense nor in our modern sense.  It’s a novel about a microcosm of society and about money. 

Yes, there is a sexual tension, a potential love affair that drives the action forward.  But this is only a device. 

Yes, it is a device that works.  But that does not make it the be all and end all of the novel. 

And those who insist on seeing the novel only in that light do grave disservice to Miss Austen’s work.

Let’s start with the characters.  Mr. Bennet is an idle, self-absorbed and feckless father, with a false sense of being a victim of his wife’s folly; he uses the entail as an excuse for his apathy and failure to provide.  These less than admirable traits are made palatable by his sense of humour. 

Mrs. Bennet is a wholly unpleasant scheming social-climber, a gregarious and spiteful gossip, a hypochondriac and attention seeker who is engaged in a perpetual spat with her husband and uses their daughters in this marital tug-of-war. 

Jane is lovely.

Elizabeth is witty, yes.  But she is also the one who brings the nefarious Wickham into the household, lavishing her attention on him in such a way that does cause talk.  So much so, that even her closest friend urges greater propriety and circumspection.  And would the youngest sister, engaged in one-upmanship with her elder, wiser sisters, have so latched onto him if she hadn’t first been persuaded of his desirability by her sister, Lizzie, and also by the desire to score one over on that sister? 

Elizabeth’s change of heart toward Darcy is dated precisely from the moment she apprehends just how much money he has and how the possession of such a fortune would lift her out of the straits she has endured at home.  Which is as mercenary as one can get. 

We know too that financially the Bennets are strapped–they can only afford to keep a pair of job horses which are used for the farmwork, pulling the carriage and only rarely for riding.  That tells us a lot.  It says their holdings don’t run to even enough acreage to grow their own fodder for more than a pair of horses, nor for their pasturage. 

One thing is certain, Pride and Prejudice is a moral tale, urging a consideration of the ramifications of reckless behaviour upon all those giddy heads of the early 19th century.  Lydia’s flirting and folly has the consequence of bringing ruination upon the whole Bennet family. 

We laugh at it now.  

But 200 years ago, Lydia’s fall from grace, as it were, would entail the social exclusion of the entire family from all polite/moral society.  That means no one would have spoken to them.  At all.  They would have been cut dead by all their previous friends and acquaintances and henceforth lived very isolated.

Equally, the remaining daughters would all have been unmarriageable after Lydia’s co-habitation with Wickham.  The only offers they would have received would have been those of ‘wives in watercolour’.  That is to say, mistresses.  

This is a novel about the true consequences of folly.  The themes of money, family and respectability within society are a constant through the novel. 

We read, perhaps, because of Darcy’s infatuation with Elizabeth, but all the time, Austen is delivering a strong sermon on the need for wisdom–financially, emotionally, behaviourally–and the taking of responsibility for one’s actions.  So much so, that one wonders, occasionally, if she wasn’t speaking from personal experience, such is her rigour on these subjects.

A final word.  The romanticision of the novel on screen has only furthered this miscontruing.  And the recent offering with Keira Knightley is the most egregious to date. 

For example, she wore dark-coloured clothes.  To an 19th century audience this would have openly identified her as a servant.  Would the social-climbing Mrs. Bennet ever have allowed that misconception to be a possibility?

Wearing white or pale muslin was a statement about their status and financial security (vital to those who were in danger of losing both).  If one could afford white or pale muslin, one could afford the servants to wash it frequently because it was so easily soiled; and because muslin does not wash well, it was a statement that the wearer could afford to replace her clothes at a regular interval. 

Then there was her running about barefoot.  To that, I can only say, “Yuh, right.” 

Again, shoes were a statement of wealth and status.  Only field and factory workers, sailors, gypsies, beggars and such went barefoot.  As with the muslin, cleanliness was an indication of financial stability – cleanliness indicated servants who could heat and carry the water for your bath. 

Emma Hamilton by Romney

The Elizabeth Bennet of that version would have received one thing and one thing only from one of family such as Mr. Darcy.  And it would not have included a wedding ring. Unless she were able to attain it later in the manner of Emma Hamilton.  (Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a big fan of Nelson’s Emma…) 

It is hard not to conclude that Pride and Prejudice isn’t in many ways a novel of wish-fulfilment for Miss Austen.  Her own father’s fecklessness is well-documented.  Her mother’s constant harping on his financial insecurity is equally well-known. 

A most poignant thing is the bill of auction on the wall at Austen’s home in Chawton.  Her parents listed her beloved fortepiano for sale without telling her or asking her about it.  That’s how straitened were their finances, that’s how much she was considered no more than chattel to them. 

A rich man, a Mr. Darcy, who would lift her out of the penury and wretchedness of life with such people, must have looked more than attractive…

So let’s give Miss Austen her due.  She wasn’t writing a romance.  She left that to the likes of Maria Edgeworth whose saccharine novels, curiously, we don’t read any longer.  She was inventing the domestic novel and putting into it all the components of fine literature – life themes which extend beyond the mere will they/won’t they, plus sub-themes, moral quandaries and corruption, character development and stagnation.  Tolstoy addresses many similar themes in War and Peace.

Is it a love story though?  To tell the truth, I don’t know.  You fight it out.

Read my other posts about Jane Austen, Austen – the Cash Cow and Mean Girls 1812-style