And here it is in all it impassioned glory, and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Take it away, Renee!
Because I love a good literary debate, and because this runs parallel to something I've been wanting to discuss for ages and haven't found the time — AND because all serious Austen discussions make me wild-eyed passionate — Renee was . . . treated to the longest youtube comment I've ever made in my life (sorry!), which I'm reproducing for you here:
Renee and I would seriously like to know your thoughts, and if you've ever wished for a heroine that was a little more YOU, or wished to see some more winning underdogs in Austen and classics in general. (But be nice, please! Renee has expressed some terror that you're going to come after her with pitchforks. I tried to tell her that we don't handle pitchforks because it makes our kid gloves untidy, but she persists in her worry... ;P )MY TAKE: I would dispute the idea that they're good looking, actually, as Austen makes a point to say that most of them are plain. Repeatedly, she talks about Catherine Morland being plain (the entire beginning of the novel is about her being downright plain, especially for a novel heroine), Lizzie being pretty enough to not be "plain," but it's implied (by strangers and family) that her looks are generally average, Anne being plain and losing her bloom (ie aging, looking tired, etc.), etc. etc. Now, plain isn't to say they're downright ugly, but plain back in the day was basically shorthand for "not pretty," and often the crux of their physical descriptions is that they shine in other ways, or are considered pretty once someone gets to know them (ie Darcy remarks on Lizzie's infamous 'fine eyes' after actually getting to converse with her and see the intelligence expressed in them; Anne regains her bloom when she starts feeling happier and free - she hasn't physically changed, but her personality wins people over).
Real expressions of BEAUTIFUL characters tend to be reserved for those who are tangentially involved with the main - Lizzie is 'pretty enough' but her sister is gorgeous (and thus the one novel readers of the day (and likely, now) would expect the hero to go for); even Emma, who is pretty much acknowledged a beauty, befriends Harriet, who she (and others, but maybe most especially she) consider to be Hellenic in the extent of her beauty, and HUGE plot-points in the novel revolve around not EMMA's but HARRIET's beauty. There's always someone more beautiful than the heroine - and the point seems to be that they shine despite that, because there are more things to life (and more things to women) than beauty.
I would actually argue that we think of these female leads as more beautiful than they are written because we have been trained to think of them as such - they will never not be represented by a beautiful actress doing that Hollywood standby of "plain" (slightly unkempt, maybe wearing glasses and dowdy clothing, still clearly beautiful). I think it's down to our conditioning, and not Austen's writing.
NOW, all that said - those side characters who are described as plain to the point of probably being considered ugly...I will admit that their fates are not normally enviable. In fact, they're often the least enviable, And I think this was very intentional on Austen's part, because I think she was trying to show what a shit end of the stick women got - if you were vibrant/witty/intelligent/funny/kind/rich enough, THEN society might forgive you for not also being the most gloriously gorgeous one in the room ("not handsome enough to tempt"), but if you didn't have some force of character to override society's need for beauty, then you were still pretty much fucked, and them's the breaks. I think she wanted her readers to see that, to understand how tenuous a woman's grasp was on security and happiness if she didn't fit that perfect mold...a thing we are still discussing in many ways today.
(On a side note, without making this ANY LONGER THAN IT IS, OMG, I would say that Austen was actually challenging social mores quite a bit - she is quite a bit subversive and sarcastic, but much more subtle (and of course, a product of her times) than the Brontes (who are a product of THEIR times). And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do an Austen slut-shaming video for me next Austen in August!!)
Share your thoughts on this (and on whether you, too, want to see that slut-shaming video!), and further the discussion in the comments!
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