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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unpopular Opinions & Under-Appreciated Characters | guest post from Renee!

When one of my vlogger buddies, Renee of Nehomas2, asked if I'd be willing to have her share a vlog with us for AIA, one that was a bit of an emotional sore spot and that touched on some more difficult, potentially unpopular aspects of Austen, I was all sorts of HELLS YES.
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:
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!!)
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 )

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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  1. Ok, let's get out the pitchforks!!! Only joking, but you seem so apologetic about what you're saying, and I thought your video was very interesting. As for Anne de Bourgh, I don't think Lizzy was so much happy that Darcy would be getting a wife with health problems but that he would be getting a cross wife, but I accept that she is unsympathetic, though we don't know if Anne de Bourgh is actually ill or whether Anne's sickliness is something Lady Catherine has fostered. I have always seen AdB as a bit of a mystery; we really don't know what she's like because she's such a secondary character.

    And though Mary isn't portrayed kindly she does get a happy ending, where she is no longer mortified with comparisons between her sister's beauty and her own. To be fair to her sisters, it is one thing to understand and sypathise that she is compensating for what she feels are deficiencies in her looks and looking to find her place in the family but quite another thing to live with a person who is embarrassing socially and always preaching at you in a holier than thou fashion. Charlotte Lucas is described as a plain person and she does very well for herself - I know in our terms she doesn't do well for herself, ending up with Mr Collins, but if you are a woman back then your 'job' for want of a better word is to get married. Charlotte presumably didn't meet anybody she could love, which is not that surprising given that she moved in confined society, so she had the choice of being supported by a family member in the future or taking her life into her own hands and getting a husband and a family of her own. Charlotte goes into marriage with her eyes wide open and I think given her strong sense and management skills that she and Collins could be happy together. I think in realistic terms Charlotte is a success story.

    I agree with Misty's comment that the heroines of Austen aren't necessarily the prettiest people in their books but I don't think it's fair to say Anne Elliot was plain, she is described as having very pretty features, though she is beginning to look old (which means she's an older heroine, which breaks the mould somewhat). I also don't agree that Elizabeth Bennet was only average - the Bennet sisters have been described as beauties within their county and Elizabeth is described as being second in beauty to Jane, who is very beautiful. Darcy's initial reaction to her could be because he doesn't find her attractive until he comes to see her personality, but I've always assumed it's more that he is determined not to be pleased, he makes it clear to his friends that she scarcely has a good feature, why so vehement unless he is attracted to her and doesn't want to be? Methinks he protests too much.

    What I find refreshing about Austen's heroines is that they aren't perfect. Beautiful, good Jane Bennet is a secondary character in P&P, her sometimes judgemental sister is the heroine. I completely identified with Lizzy when I first read the book partly because she wasn't perfect, she made mistakes. There is no way I could have connected with her sister as the heroine of the novel.

    Austen's heroines may have generally been quite attractive but most of them have other, sometimes significant faults. How many people would dream they were Emma? She is handsome, healthy, rich.... but somewhat arrogant and rude. Marianne was pretty, but a tiresome drama queen.

    I think bearing in mind that Austen was writing 25 or so years before the Brontes she was pushing boundaries with her heroines, they just weren't the same ones. I don't really like to compare them, because they wrote such different styles of book, I can like Jane Eyre for being a passionate, fervently religious and dramatic book and it doesn't make me like Austen's humour, irony and view on society any less. I know you are not saying it's one or the other but it's something that is often compared as if you can only choose one.

  2. Hi Renee!

    What courage to share a potentially controversial opinion! Thank you! I actually own a pitchfork, but its needed to deal with straw and my garden so you're safe.

    I had a different impression from reading the stories in the heroines physical appearances. I found them a variety in fact ranging from pretty to pretty-ish to plain. And the ones I did find pretty, I didn't actually care for too much though it was honestly personality or flaws that annoyed me not appearance (I'm not a fan of Lizzy Bennet, Marianne Dashwood or Emma Woodhouse). As a young girl and even now, I identify more with Eleanor Dashwood, Anne Elliot and Fanny Price mostly b/c of character and personality. I found all the characters flawed a bit, but that just makes me able to relate and I did enjoy seeing them grow even the ones that irritated me.

    I was and am always fascinated a bit with the minor characters since some of their stories were almost equally interesting. When I read her stories, I am struck by the thought that it feels like it was just chance that certain characters tumbled to the top so it was their stories that were told. Because seriously, I would read a story-and I have in fan fiction and Austenesque fiction- about Henry Crawford, Mary Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Jane Fairfax, Eleanor Tilney or Charlotte Collins and many more. I say this b/c I think its perfectly fine to identify with any of the minor characters too.

    I don't think for a moment that not relating to certain characters makes you less of a Janeite. This is obvious just watching a room or virtual room full of Janeites try to do something as simple as rank the novels by favorite or discuss the worst Austen villain or romantic pairings. So many opinions!

    I enjoyed both Renee's vlog and Misty's response. Thanks ladies!


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