I recently picked up Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross at the library recently. It is a rather slight biography but the main interest is regarding Austen's culture. On the whole, the book is a fun read and filled with insights on social mores.
However there were some sour notes in Ross' book that cast a rather poor light on Jane Austen. I'm not entirely sure if these notes were due to Ross' own projections onto Austen or if they are valid. I would like to believe that they are not because all of Austen's books are filled with sensitive insights and not a small bit of anger against social prejudices/restrictions.
The sourness in question takes us back to Austen's own Mansfield Park. Ross' conclusions about the social implications in the novel baffled me.
1 - Marrying without affection is unbearable - Ross uses Austen's own letters to highlight her opinion that marriage without love is unbearable. That may be so and Ross is correct in that deduction. However to refuse marriage is a choice filled many dire consequences for women. All of which Austen understood in regards to her own decision and wrote about in her novels.
Let us take into account Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice. It is rather clear to readers that Lucas is an extraordinary character just as much as Elizabeth Bennet. However Austen points out many times in the novel that Lucas is not a handsome woman. Which greatly hampers her chances at a good match. Many people don't realize that although Elizabeth Bennet stayed true to her ideals they were promises easy to keep because she was beautiful. Lucas, who is a plainer woman and more sensible, realizes that Elizabeth's crazy cousin Mr. Collins is her only chance. Austen writes pointedly that Lucas' brothers are extremely relieved that they won't have to support her old maid ways. We also discover that Charlotte is rather happy with the outcome and her life. She may not love Mr. Collins but he isn't a cruel man and treats her well. He gives her security and a lovely home which she enjoys. The true ideal would be if love was part of the match but Austen shows that the lack of it is not always horrible. Not all of us will have a rich, handsome suitor like Darcy on the line.
What if there had been no Darcy for Elizabeth? She would have found that although she stayed true to her ideals, she would have found herself at the mercy of Mr. Collins afterall.
In regards to Mansfield Park, Fanny Price only marries her true love Edmund because his family is disgraced. Take a good, cold hard look at this love wins all ending. The fact of the matter is that the only woman who would accept Edmund is Fanny. No woman of any good family would marry a man who had a sister who caused a public sex scandal.
If you don't believe this is so, than contrast it again with Pride and Prejudice. Many hail Mr. Darcy's search for Lydia as good hearted. But they ignore the selfish reason for it as well. The fact is Elizabeth is within Darcy's reach but the disgrace that Lydia cast upon her family would have cut off the possibility of marriage to her forever. Wickham knew Darcy and knew the situation (gathered no doubt from Lydia's gossip). His elopement with Lydia was precisely to destroy Darcy's marriage hopes. His search for Lydia and her forced marriage to Wickham was to make sure there was no social stigma against a union to Elizabeth.
In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford's advice is looked upon as cold hearted. But is this because she was a woman and unable to heroically ride off to force a marriage between Henry and Maria? Ultimately Maria's extramarrital affair with Henry Crawford caused her family to be looked upon as social pariahs. And this is before taking into account that Julia Bertram also ran off with a man and had to marry him. Tell me truly, would Edmund Bertram have any chance at making a good match with an heiress after all this scandal? A quiet marriage to the dependable Fanny would be about his only option.
Fanny may have held out for love and stayed true to her ideals but lucked out only due to scandal.
Isn't it odd that only social scandals allow Austen heroines to win their true love? The implication being that their ideals are unrealistic in a pragmatic world and only disaster can make them an option.
Austen may have written prettily to her niece regarding affection in marriage but the facts were she was unmarried and dependant upon her brothers for support. Her books contain numerous pointed asides regarding women's limited options, her heroines marriages can only be won through social disaster and she shows that a loveless marriage can be a happy union in some respects. It makes me wonder if Austen was just trying to soothe her niece rather than being cold heartedly honest with her.
2 - The Poor are lazy - Ross states in her book that Mrs. Price's home is an example of poor management. That the woman had enough money to hire two slovenly servants so she should have been able to pull her family up from squalor. I have a problem with this interpretation because it implies that Austen herself is something of a Social Darwinist. I refuse to believe Austen is that unsympathetic.
I highly doubt Mrs. Price would have farmed Fanny out to be a handmaiden to rich relatives if money wasn't in short supply. In Emma, Austen highlighted that the loss of children to relatives (Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill) due to poverty is traumatic to all involved. In the best circumstances, children would never have to leave home. There are no examples in Austen's novels where rich people lose their children or siblings. Emma was allowed to remain at her home when her mother passed away. Mr. Darcy did not have to lose his young sister to whom he is practically a father instead of brother.
Mrs. Price is a woman in dire circumstances. She lives in a society that does not allow women to work. She lives in a society that does not have proper birth control. She lacks the power to use what limited birth control was available at the time. Her family is drowning in debt due to trying to live on a soldier's small pension. The two useless servents seem a delusional attempt to not appear so poor. The hopelessness of the situation is the direct cause of Mrs. Price' unkept appearance, dilapidated home (no money to fix the leaks) and unruly children (no energy after the heroic effort to stretch money to feed a family another day). Is it any wonder everyone is sullen and depressed when Fanny comes to visit? Would circumstances magically change if Mrs. Price or the two servants gussied up the leaky house? Would a clean home miraculously cure her husband so that he would no longer be disabled? But of course in a society with no social safety nets nor women's rights the fact that Mrs. Price is too lazy to upkeep her house and do her hair is the reason she is so poor.
In regards to Austen's statement about marriage without love being unbearable, it is highly enlightening to point out that Mrs. Price did marry for love. Austen states that she married to disoblige her family. A cynical way of stating she didn't try to marry for money as her sisters did but ran after a dashing soldier.
So was Jane Austen a proponent of Malthus? Was she a fan of his An Essay on the Principle of Population? Did she believe that Mrs. Price and her brood should starve because they were weaker and lazier than their social superiors? At the beginning of the novel Mr. Bertram mouths some of these Malthusian platitudes to his family regarding Fanny's inferiority. But as the novel progresses Fanny's natural intelligence and sensitive nature constantly shows that poverty is not due to inferiority. I refuse to believe Austen supported these Malthusian ideas or had no sympathy for the Prices. Especially since she makes it so clear that a marriage between Fanny and Mr. Henry Crawford would help the Prices enormously. And there is an implication that it was Fanny's responsibility to relieve the suffering of her family if she was in a position to do so.
Despite those few off notes, I really enjoyed Ross' book. It was filled with details regarding fashion, books, interior decoration and social events of Austen's time. She also clearly focused on how all of these social elements appeared in Austen's novels.
Labels: books, commentary, culture, reviews