Now, on to the last question. This is a favorite of mine because answers tend to be varied and passionate, and it always makes for good discussion.
MISTY: Okay, we all know from our many Mansfield discussions this year that not everything in Austen is rose-colored. There are certainly things that bother us, and bother us muchly. I have a few things that... just make me uncomfortable, I guess? I mean, things that I like or accept while reading, or when I was younger, but afterwards (or years later), I'm like, wait... I mean, Marianne and Col. Brandon? I just can't look on that so favorably anymore. As a teen, I was like, He's a good man, she needs to wake up. And as an adult, I'm like, SHE'S A CHILD, HE NEEDS TO WAKE UP. I also feel like she's a surrogate for the woman he loved - that he's more fixated on Marianne-as-a-substitution, and not Marianne-as-Marianne. I can't feel that they'll be happy together forever, because at some point, she'll realize she gave in to escape her misery, and he'll realize that he doesn't love her, he loves the idea of her. And I don't want that for either of them... I don't know, it just doesn't sit well with me. But what about you guys? What kinda drives you nuts?
KARA: Oh! I must have my share in this conversation! There is something that has always bothered me. I find it difficult to fathom that Mr. Darcy would have admitted to Caroline Bingley that he finds Elizabeth Bennet's eyes fine. Now I know some of you may say that he wanted to discourage Caroline's attentions to him, but really, to her? Another man, maybe, but not her!
MISTY: Hmm. I don't know that it's ever bothered me (probably because it was the first part of the book to give me butterflies...), but I never really looked at it as something out of character, either. I sort of can see him saying something to shut Caroline up, as I think he does delight in that a little bit.
MARIA: Austen let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. She does not punish her antagonists and sometimes that really annoys me.
MISTY: Hahaha, yes! We'd all like to see a little well-deserved comeuppance from time to time, I think.
ALEXA: It's hard to criticize Jane, but there are a couple of things that leave a bad taste in my mouth. The entire characterization of both Isabella and John Thorpe leaves me uneasy, and I often wonder if Mrs. Norris doesn't suffer from dementia-
MISTY: Hmm. Interesting...
ALEXA: ...but perhaps the most troubling thing in her novels is the propensity for women to marry men who aren't their intellectual equals. Three of our heroines suffer this fate (Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and yes, as hard as it may be to admit, Anne Elliot), as well as several of the minor characters (Lucy Steele, Jane Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, Maria Bertram, Mrs. Weston, Jane Fairfax). While we do have counter examples (most obviously Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, as well as Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley), it seems like the majority of the time men bring little more than their status to a relationship, while all its substance is supplied by their ladies. Perhaps I'm imposing too much of Austen's biography on her work, but there seems to me some bitterness here. If I find it hard to submit to an adored heroine loving a man of half her worth, how difficult must it have been for a woman as brilliant as Jane Austen to live in a society in which marriage "was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want."
JESSICA: I’ll probably be dodging bullets for this one, but HOW much older Mr. Knightley is than Emma. Sixteen years! That’s a pretty darn big gap! It’s not so much that I think they can’t have a happy life, I just always end the book stressed out about how much life they’ll actually have together before he kicks the bucket! I realize he’s only 37 in the book, but I get so concerned about Regency era life expectancy. Just call me Mr. Woodhouse, I guess.
MISTY: I worry more about the disparity in their power levels. I mean, not that Emma isn't powerful in her own right, but he's been a brother/father figure in many respects. And because of his age, he'll always have that upper hand, he'll always have that superior, 'I was a capable adult when you were a child, making childish decisions' thing in his favor. He's helped mold her. In some ways, it's a lesser version of one of the problems I have with Edmund Bertram - he molded Fanny from her formative years, teaching her to parrot him, praising her for being what he wanted, first as a brother figure, and then as a potential lover. And now he's going to be her husband... The balance of power is really off, and that makes modern-me very uncomfortable.
NANCY: Edmund Bertram as a romantic hero. There aren’t enough words in the English language to express my utter disdain for him. Heroes do NOT spend three-fourths of the book ignoring the heroine’s needs and wishes.
MISTY: ...or thinking he's in love with someone else, only to suddenly "realize" and have everything be forgiven and forgotten within seconds... But as I said above, I have bigger problems with Edmund.
JUNE: Many of JA’s characters were very passive, silently accepting horrible situations. Why didn’t the Dashwood ladies confront their son and brother about the stingy amount of money he gave them? Why didn’t Anne Elliot tell her sister Mary to quit being a whiny hypochondriac? Why didn’t Anne de Bourgh tell her mother get off her back? Admittedly, the Regency era had very different expectation for proper behaviour, but a few JA characters did speak up. Lizzy Bennet bluntly objected to marrying Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Bennet loudly complained about the entail, not that it helped motivate Mr. Bennet to put money aside for his daughters' future but she did try.
CAROL: Knowing that Jane Austen wrote during the Georgian/Regency period, you can appreciate the fact that her stories were a reflection of society, but it is still shocking to realize how little freedom women had back then.
MISTY: Yes. Because even those who did try to buck tradition did so at great personal risk - Fanny was sent back to Portsmouth, Lizzie was threatened with being sent away and could have ruined her family's future, Mrs Bennet drives away the very thing she's trying to attract, etc. It's tricky... Alright, what else don't we love?
ALYSSA: The whole side story of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. It seems forced and overly dramatic.
MISTY: It was very dramatic. And though it feels authentic to Frank's character, it seems less-so for Jane's. What else doesn't sit right?
SALLY: Northanger Abbey. It feels a bit immature to me. I don’t believe she would have published it as is. I’m pretty sure if she had lived she would have reworked it before sending to her publisher if she sent it at all. Not being happy with it may very well be the reason she never did send it to her publisher, her brother found it in amongst her things after her death and he had it published. I’m glad he did as it would have been a shame to lose any of her writings but it just never felt like Austen to me.
MISTY: Though I see why people call it immature, and I think you're right, it probably would have been reworked, I can't help but love it and be glad it wasn't.
DEBORAH: I don't like the passage in Persuasion about the dead Musgrove son, in which Austen comes close to suggesting that, because he was kind of a loser, his parents’ grief at his loss is imaginary – “her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for” – is the only moment in the novels in which Austen strikes what I think is a psychologically false note. It’s not that she’s tough and mean and sarcastic – I love that about her! – but that she doesn’t seem to understand that parental love has nothing whatsoever to do with the merit of its object. You love ‘em no matter how loserly they are, and so it cannot be the case that the Musgroves didn’t care for poor Dick. (And he died at 19! You definitely haven’t written off your loserly kids by 19.) I can’t remember if this passage bothered me when I first read Persuasion, but since I’ve become a parent, it’s always brought me up short.
MISTY: I guess I always took that not as coming from a mother's sentiments, but from a casual observers who thinks it's ironic. I mean, I'm pretty sure I've heard similar things said...
DEBORAH: More generally: I find the endings of several of the novels frustrating because they refuse to gratify our romantic fantasies. Edward Ferrars breaks the good news of his non-marriage to Elinor Dashwood, watches her leave the room in tears, goes off for a walk, and then. . . “How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution. . .how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told,” Austen coolly informs us. To which I reply: “OH, YES, IT NEED BE!” It’s no wonder that both Emma Thompson and Andrew Davies dropped the long walk and gave us the love scene when they adapted Sense and Sensibililty for the screen. We are SO jonesing for that lovey-dovey stuff that not to get it is almost like having the symphony break off just before the final note resolves the chord.
LAURIE: Much as I adore Austen, I feel shortchanged in the proposal scenes.
DEBORAH: There are similar non-proposal proposal scenes in just about every novel, though for my tastes, the endings of Emma and Persuasion work wonderfully. (A Janeite friend of mine, however, told me that when she first read Emma’s reply to Mr. Knightley – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” – she threw the book across the room.)
MISTY: Everyone says that, but I actually like that!
LAURIE: Austen shies away from the play-by-play, and at the critical moment, she switches from dialogue to removed summary. The famous LETTER in Persuasion is a notable exception, but even there the author cuts away at one point and reverts to summary ("There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement.") I assume this is a symptom of a more reserved era, but it's challenging for this modern reader, who likes her love scenes spelled out. Which is just one of the reasons the movies are so popular. We'd never see an Austen heroine and hero kiss in the novels, but we sure love to see it in the films. Culturally accurate? Hardly. Satisfying? You betcha.
MISTY: See, I'm the opposite, I guess, from the modern reader who wants it spelled out. Not that I don't sometimes want things to be a little more explicit, because she showed she was capable of writing incredibly romantic, stomach-fluttery lines. But having it left to the reader's imagination - letting them best decide what is romantic - that's a good thing, to me. But then, I tend to find "romantic" things unbearably cheesy, so that's probably why...
DEBORAH: Some people argue that this stuff is a straight artistic failure. “Poor Jane Austen! She was never proposed to herself – well, not by someone she was in love with, anyway -- so she couldn’t write those scenes.” Puh-leeze. Jane Austen couldn’t make stuff up? As if. I’m more inclined to think that withholding the love scenes is her way of disciplining her readers. We’ve all got those Marianne-like fantasies about love, and she’s trying to teach us to let go of them, to be more Elinor-like in our rational expectations of happiness. So maybe I’m not as Elinor-like as I think. Because I have to admit that I’ve watched the Emma Thompson and Andrew Davies versions of the Elinor-Edward proposal scene about a million – well, let’s just say, often.
MISTY: I do like a good proposal scene in a movie. But it's different in the books. When I'm watching someone else's interpretation of a world, I can just go with it, but when I'm creating that world myself, I want a little license. Austen gives us that, she allows us to make it the best, the most affecting, for us.
MONICA: Jane Austen is Jane Austen, we love her for who she is. Given her attention to detail, though, I’m amazed that she doesn’t refer to anything that’s happening outside the confines of the drawing-room. No reference to the war with Napoleon, no mention of everyday events outside the confines of her novels, no mention of Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo. Nothing. It’s as if she deliberately purged her novels of everything that doesn’t belong to the world the women in her novels inhabit. Was it a deliberate choice? I can’t help feeling it must have been, because we know JA had strong opinions about the political events of the time. We know from her letters, for example, that she sided with Princess Caroline against the Regent who was trying to cast her aside, but there is no hint of anything in her novels.
MISTY: I wouldn't wonder if it was a conscious choice, to give the novels more staying power. They're more universal, more transcendent, if they're not locked into a very specific, brief time-frame.
MONICA: Having said that, I think the lack of political references contributes to our feeling of entering a fairy tale world suspended from time and space, and may well be one of the reasons P&P is so appealing to us today.
MISTY: True. She certainly is well-capable of transporting us, and maybe she did the same for her readers then - maybe she transported them out of the day to day worries... Any other things we dislike about her novels, ladies?
CASSANDRA: That they end? ;)
MISTY: Too true.
So, what doesn't sit well with all of you? Anything you wish you could change, or at least wish to know what Austen was thinking?
Participants in this discussion:
Alexa Adams, author of the "A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice" series
Carol Cromlin, author of Fitzwilliam Darcy such as I was
Monica Fairview, author of The Other Mr Darcy, The Darcy Cousins, et al.
Alyssa Goodnight, author of Austentatious, Austensibly Ordinary, et al.
Maria Grace, author of the Given Good Principles series
Cassandra Grafton, author of A Fair Prospect
Jessica Grey, author of Attempting Elizabeth
Nancy Kelley, author of the Brides of Pemberely series
Kara Louise, author of Only Mr Darcy Will Do, Pirates and Prejudice, et al.
Sally Smith O'Rourke, author of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen
Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict
June Williams, co-author of Headstrong Girls.
and Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites
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