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Thursday, August 8, 2019

MISUNDERSTOOD AUSTEN: A Janeite Conversation

Jane Austen, Austen in August, Austenesque, JAFF, jane austen fanfiction, Austen variations, jane austen interview, The Book Rat, BookRatMisty

It's Thursday, so that means it's time for our next Janeite Conversation! This week, I gathered our lovely Austenesque authors round the ol' pianoforte, and we had a little chat about our misunderstandings and misconceptions.

 What are some things, no matter how minor, that you interpreted wrong when you first read Austen, that may have changed your perception of the story/characters/etc? (ie how truly wealthy certain characters are, the significance of things we'd consider minor nowadays, like letters and gifts that Mean Things in the 1800s, the importance of "bloodlines" or the place of trade, etc.)
MISTY: I've realized recently that there are a few images and significances I'd built up in my mind that colored the way I was interpreting things. It was JAFF that made me realize, actually — little elements I may have missed or misunderstood were highlighted in adaptations that made me rethink things. For example, I really underestimated how nice both the Gardiner's house and warehouses were likely to be. Also, that Cheapside was far from cheap! Who'd have guessed. I've had to drastically revise my mental image of that whole quadrant, and of the tasteful, homey slight-shabbiness I'd built up in my head.
ABIGAIL: I've given an entire hour-long lecture about things I originally misinterpreted about Austen over the years! Like most readers, I initially liked Mr. Bennet and thought he was funny, but now I think he was neglectful and verbally abusive.
MISTY: Yeah, you're not the only one.
ABIGAIL: For years I missed the fact that Jane Austen carefully set up the scene of Elizabeth's first meeting with Wickham so that Wickham is in a position to observe Darcy's face when he sees Elizabeth. Before that I'd always thought it was odd he was so interested in Elizabeth who really wasn't his type (he likes them young and stupid), but once I realized he knew from the beginning that Darcy was interested in her, it put a completely different light on his decision to charm her and pour his poison about Darcy into her ear. I'd thought that was pure coincidence until then.
MISTY: OH MY GOD, I never considered that Wickham knew from the beginning that Darcy liked her! I mean, I did figure he had the jump on Darcy as far as noticing him, but that's about as far as my brain went with it. Mind. Blown.

ABIGAIL: Changes a lot, doesn't it? If you read the passage leading up to the meeting carefully and map out who is facing which direction all the time as they cross the street and go up and down, and think about what she says about where Darcy is looking and all those details JA never gives us *unless there's a reason*, you'll see that she tells us Wickham sees Darcy looking at E, and of course he knows Darcy very well... I discovered this while trying to write the scene from a different POV for our P&P200 project and had to map it out with chessmen to work who stood where.
And once you know that, and you consider that Wickham later discovers D&E met again at Rosings and that E's opinion of D was bettered by it, and then in Brighton Lydia just might have said, "Oh, I got a letter and Lizzy isn't going to the Lakes after all. She's going to Derbyshire instead." Why would she go there? To see Darcy, of course! That would be enough to clue Wickham in that running off with Lydia just might be worth some real money to Darcy. Suddenly the coincidences in the plot are lining up in a not-so-coincidental manner. Clever lady, that Miss Austen, but maybe a little too clever for some of us sometimes!
MISTY: It amazes me how new facets are uncovered not only every time I read her, but often when I read adaptations of her that interpreted or picked up on something differently than I did, and expands what I'd considered the scene to be prior.
DEBORAH: My first reads are so lost in the mists of time that I can’t remember what I thought back then. I do remember, however, the incomprehension and (to be honest) teensy bit of scorn with which I reacted to a high school classmate’s confused question on first reading Emma, a book I already knew and loved: “Did Mr. Elton rape Emma?” She was responding to Austen’s description of the proposal during the Christmas Eve carriage ride: “Mr. Elton actually making violent love to” our heroine. This was obviously, I thought then, a straight-up misunderstanding of nineteenth-century language.
MISTY: I can imagine that one throws a lot of modern audiences for a loop, to be fair.
DEBORAH: In a literal sense, I still think that’s true: Jane Austen doesn’t mean us to understand that Mr. Elton forced sexual intercourse on Emma. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see that my classmate was also not entirely wrong. She was, I think, picking up on a sense of menacing male entitlement – a sense of how badly things can, in fact, go when you’re a woman trapped alone in a confined space with an angry, drunk, aggressive man -- that is definitely present in that scene, as a sort of shadow behind the actual events.
MISTY: That's a great point, actually! And to be fair, Regency and Victorian women weren't really considered to be safe alone around men the vast majority of the time, so it's not that big a stretch.
DEBORAH: I sometimes think of Emma as ringing a series of changes on the adjectives in the famous first line – “handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma has the trifecta, but other women in the novel get only two, or one, or none, of those qualities (e.g., Jane Fairfax: handsome and clever, but not rich; Harriet: handsome, but neither clever nor rich; Miss Bates: none of the above), and it’s not hard to imagine how far Mr. Elton might have felt licensed to go if he’d been stuck in that carriage with a woman who lacked the social power and self-confidence that Emma possesses effortlessly as a consequence of inheriting that trifecta. I guess I had to live a little longer -- and, unfortunately, learn more about menacing male entitlement – in order to see all of that.
MISTY: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
MARIA: It took me a long time to get the economics of the era, particularly the very difficult role gentlewomen were in. Since they had no job skills, without a man or family member to provide for them, they were in dire straits. Even if they took employment as a companion or governess, they were regularly put upon by male members of the households they worked for.
MISTY: It kind of make Catherine's melodrama in Northanger a little more understandable, doesn't it?
MARIA: Married women basically lost their legal personhood upon marriage. Anything they owned became their husband’s upon marriage and remained that way even if they divorced (which was almost never). She could not enter into contracts, only her husband could. If she worked, all her wages belonged to her husband. So if a girl with a fortune in dowry money eloped, it all belonged to her husband and she had no recourse if he frittered it all away.
JENNIEKE:  I didn’t understand until I started researching divorce in the Regency for DANGEROUS ALLIANCE how tragic Colonel Brandon’s past really was. The fact that they forced the girl he loved (Eliza) to marry his brother was bad enough, but then the brother treated her badly and publicly divorced her on the grounds of (her) adultery! With no family left to support her, she would have been a truly “fallen” woman fighting a HUGE scandal alone. I don’t think I read it “wrong” before, but it was really hard for me to understand the context of what it all really meant until I looked into it further.
MISTY: I think, across the board, it can be hard to fathom the precarious position most characters found themselves in, and to appreciate how much that influenced their actions.
MARIA: Women really had few options and little protection and that was just how it was.
CHRISTINA: When I first read Austen in high school, I thought it was all fluffy and prim. When in fact there is a lot of subtle heat and, not to go all “Andrew Davies,” but there is a lot of sexual tension, repressed steam. I think we readers tend to confuse the Victorian era with Regency.
MISTY: I mean. . . judging by the sheer number of Pride & Prejudice retellings there are that turn the smolder up into a full blown inferno, I think we were all at the very least subconsciously tapping into that. ;)
MARILYN: I first read P&P when I was a 14-year-old high school freshman. Even though Elizabeth was only 20 at the start of the novel, she came across as very mature to me and wise for her years. I credited some of this to the era in which she lived, and even more of it to her natural intellect and observational skills. Sure, she made mistakes in judgment and held a massive grudge against Darcy, but I still thought of her as fully an adult. When I was 20, I thought of myself as an adult...which, in retrospect, is exactly the reason why I wasn't quite, LOL. Now, as a parent of a 20-year-old , I have a very different perspective on maturity.
MISTY: This is one of the things that stands out to me most now, looking back. They're all so young!
MARILYN: If I'd read P&P for the first time at age 30 or 45, I suspect I might have recognized Elizabeth's grown-up posturing for what it was. This reflection doesn't take away one bit of my admiration of her as a character, especially since she grows in self-realization so much during the course of the story, but it does serve to remind me that "youth" and "adulthood" are relative concepts.
DEBRA-ANN: I totally misunderstood just how much Bingley & Darcy were worth when I read Pride & Prejudice in high school. Teacher only passingly mentioned it and didn’t do any of the conversions of what their income was or what that actually even meant. The whole trade issue went over my head too - as did being gently born.
MISTY: Totally! It's such a non-issue now, if not the opposite: rags-to-riches is praised, and working hard to get were you want to be is the ideal, rather than having everything "handed" to you.
JESSICA: I read most of the six novels when I was really young (like 11 and 12), so there was TONS of stuff I misinterpreted the first time around. How wealthy the characters were was definitely one of them. I also was super confused, being a pastor's kid myself, why being a member of the clergy was so desirable. Having more historical context certainly helped with some of those, but twelve year old me was like, "Oh no, do NOT marry a pastor, friends!"
MISTY: Ha! Non-religious baby Misty wondered the same.
JESSICA: As an adult reader, something that has helped me with re-reading Austen is to not look at the books purely as romances.
MISTY: Yes! I feel like I've been having this conversation a lot this month, and also, a lot of mini-revelations as a result.
JESSICA: I'm sure preteen Jess was expecting a lot more "traditional" romance from all of these books and that may have set me up a bit for my dislike of Mansfield Park — though I still maintain that Edmund Bertram is The. Worst.(TM)
CECILIA: The first time I read Pride & Prejudice I was too young to know the historical acceptance/need of cousin-marriages, and I felt it was incredibly unreasonable for Jane or Lizzie to be expected to marry Mr. Collins because GROSS.
MISTY: Speaking of romantic issues...
REGINA: I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 12 years of age, and I recall my revulsion when I read that everyone expected Darcy to marry Anne de Bourgh. HIS COUSIN!!!!
MISTY: Having been a big fan of Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl duology, and also having a steady diet of V.C. Andrews (oh, lord! that'll mess you up), I was little more inured to this. . . but still pretty squicked out.
CECILIA: This is also why it took me a decade after discovering Jane Austen to actually get through Mansfield Park. BECAUSE SUPER GROSS OMG. (Let's keep in mind I discovered Jane Austen around the same time I discovered VC Andrews and I was utterly confused by all this family romantic stuff. Because. As I've said. GROSS.)
REGINA: I kept thinking the Darcy and the deBourgh families would work perfectly in the South, where marrying cousins is a popular joke. [After all, I was born in West Virginia and had often heard the jokes from friends, family, and outsiders.] Shortly after that, my mother explained how many royal marriages were between cousins. Just a point of reference, this list shows how marrying one’s cousin is not as unusual as we (or I should say “I”) think (Can You Marry Your Cousin?):
For example, Mark Anthony married his first cousin, Antonia Hybrida Minor, and later his fourth cousin once removed, Octavia the Younger.
Charles Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. Their respective siblings Caroline Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood III also married. In addition, their grandparents, Sarah Wedgewood and Josiah Wedgewood were third cousins.
Albert Einstein’s parents were first cousins. Then Albert married his own first cousin. Elsa Lowenthal, Einstein’s second wife, was his first cousin on his mother’s side. In fact, they were also “double cousins.” Lowenthal also happened to be Einstein’s second cousin on his father’s side.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt were fifth cousins, once removed (a chart showing their relationship is available at http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/q-and-a/q6.cfm).
John Adams married his third cousin, Abigail Smith.
John F. Fitzgerald, former mayor of Boston and grandfather of John F. Kennedy, married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon.
Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, took his first cousin once removed, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, as his second wife.
Johann Sebastian Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach.
Wernher von Braun married his first cousin, Louis Boutin.
Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in Baltimore in 1835. She was 13 years old at the time.
Saddam Hussein married his first cousin, Sajida Talfah.
At the age of 21, Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. For the next 20 years, they lived in close harmony and had a family of nine children, many of whom eventually married into the European monarchy.
Princess Mary of Teck (later to become Queen Mary) married her second cousin, once removed, King George V.
(List of Coupled Cousins from Wikipedia)
MISTY: And yet I'm not one bit less-squicked.

What about YOU? Which aspects of Austen confused you, or did you realize later you had totally interpreted wrongly? Let us know in the comments!

The Janeites:
Christina Boyd, editor of the anthology Rational Creatures, et al
Marilyn Brant, author of According to Jane, et al.
Jennieke Cohen, author of Dangerous Alliance
Regina Jeffers, author of the Pride & Prejudice Murder Mystery series and many variations
Maria Grace, author of the series' Mr Darcy's Dragons, Queen of Rosings Park, et al.
Cecilia Gray, author of the Jane Austen Academy series, et al.
Jessica Grey, author of Attempting Elizabeth, et al.
Debra-Ann Kummoung, author of Falling for Elizabeth Bennet, et al.
Abigail Reynolds, author of Last Man in the World and many other P&P variations
Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites

Jane Austen, Austen in August, blog event, Jane Austen fan fiction, JAFF, The Book Rat, BookRatMisty
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  1. Thanks for sharing such great insight into Jane Austen's work. And I agree with Abigail that Wickham who knew Darcy very well must have notices Darcy's attempt not to look at Elizabeth. She was not a random target. Lydia with he propensity to gossip would have been a much better tool to spread his lies.

    1. It's not so much that I ever thought Elizabeth was a random target, but more that I never realized how soon she became part of a "plan" -- it paints his every action in a different light, and not just the end results.

  2. I love Austen. The more you look at her work, the more you find. Enjoyed all your points, ladies!

  3. I can't remember my first readings, but I do remember reading a David Shapard version of P&P. He was explaining details about how the kind of carriage Wickham and Lydia were in when they eloped was a huge clue to Austen's contemporary readers that the pair were not headed for Gretna Green. I never paid attention to the distinction in carriages and what type of traveling they were good for until then.

    Pretty sure I had all the same 'aha' moments the others did here, too. Fun post!

  4. I can't remember what I thought from my first readings since it was so long ago other then I thought the Gardiners were really poor since they lived in Cheapside which is where I thought people in the lower social classes lived. I never thought about Wickham seeing Darcy's reaction to Elizabeth before and that is a great discovery and certainly explains his interest in her. I also have found as I get older, I have less love for Mr Bennet who was one of my favorite characters when I first read the book.


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