Sunday, February 08, 2009


So, one of my Stanford friends is turning twenty-three soon, and to celebrate (I think this will become a birthday tradition) we had a ladies' brunch and watched a Chick Flick. Since this was the first time, we started with the paradigm: Pride and Prejudice. While three out of four of us knew the story incredibly well, the remaining woman had not seen, nor read, nor heard told, the story. (She thought that it was "A love story between a white woman and a black man in the deep south." I kid you not. Personally, I thought that Pride and Prejudice was required reading for every twelve year old girl, but I must be wrong).

Now, while this created problems when the three of us had to bite our tongues to stop the words "The perfidious Wickham!" from coming out of our mouths the first time he was on screen (and come on, you have to admit that perfidious is a very, very fun word to say), what was most remarkable about watching this movie with this woman was that she didn't like Mr. Darcy. It is usually a safe bet that any woman watching Pride and Prejudice will, by the end of the story, like Mr. Darcy. But my friend's response to the comment of "Man, Mr. Darcy is awesome," was not affirmation, and not even denial, but staunch disbelief. She argued that he could not have existed in Victorian England, and she much preferred works like "The Awakening" (which, as far as I can tell, follows roughly the same plot as Anna Karenina).

I don't really want to spend much time here picking apart that argument -- but it seemed to me that she was operating under several inaccuracies which she stalwartly did not accept: mostly, she assumed that Georgian England (i.e. the time of Pride and Prejudice) was the same as Victorian England. In fact, "The Awakening" was written in 1899, and "Pride and Prejudice" in 1813, and as such comparing the two eras as being synchronous is, in fact, roughly equivalent to drawing the same parallel between the aforementioned late Victorian era (circa 1900) and the mid 1980s.

The Georgian era was marked by social upheaval, unrest, and as tends to go hand-in-hand, relative social freedom. The other authors one associates with Austen (Bronte, Eliot) are also Victorians and, once again, not her actual contemporaries. On the other hand, the most famous novelist of the time was Walter Scott, who certainly had strong female characters. The most famous writer? Lord Byron (hah). And a few other well known personages who were actually Austen's contemporaries were, wait for it: Casanova, and the Marquis de Sade. I mean, I have trouble thinking that the era which gave us Casanova, Don Juan, and sadism was also known for its repressive social norms. The late Georgian period showed a lessening in restrictions in everything from class (trade and industry were becoming respectable) to undergarments, and those restrictions subsequently tightened right back up in the Victorian era. And although I told her several times that Pride and Prejudice was not Victorian but earlier, and that social mores were actually much less strict in Georgian/Regency society than they were in Victorian culture, she resolutely refused to believe me, and went on and on about how Elizabeth obviously should have killed herself because Darcy wouldn't actually fall in love with a liberated woman, being a product of Victorian society.

Why does that bother me? I mean, yes, it is one of my favorite books, but why should it matter to me what she thinks of it? Or if her opinions are legitimate or founded on false assumptions? Would I have found it easier to deal with if she had compared to an actual contemporary of Austen's, instead of someone writing some eighty years after her death? (And what would she have compared it to, Ivanhoe, which is itself historical fiction? Don Juan? Justine? That would have been a good one -- Darcy is not realistic because he is neither as depraved as de Sade, nor as womanizing as Don Juan.) But why should I care if my friend prefers Queen Victoria to Casanova? (Even if I find that rather odd?)

Except that wasn't entirely what she was saying -- instead, she was implying that Jane Austen failed at what Jane Austen was perhaps best at (creating realistic, three-dimensional, and compelling characters). She was saying Darcy wasn't realistic. Which rankles with me, because I think the strength of Austen's writing is in her characters. Not just the main characters, but even the very characters she satirizes: Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Lydia, and Mr and Mrs. Bennet. To say that even Mr. Darcy was unrealistic and impossible, and especially basing that statement on the social mores of the time (which I am fairly certain Jane Austen understood better than my biochemist friend), strikes me as the kind of ridiculous stubborn vanity as would make her, well, more akin to Lady Catherine than any other character in the movie we watched. And that is the sort of baseless condescension which I really dislike.


Duff said...

I guess what I find strange is what might be two implicit ideas with your friends arguement: 1) Moral progress follows a linear path; 2) People are totally enslaved to the culture that produces them, and destined to reproduce it. If 2) is true, I am not sure what sense can be made of the notion of moral progress to begin with (Foucault almost believed 2) but he never bothered about moral progress anyways). Further accepting that 2) is true and sense can be made of moral progress, how is progress then achieved? Won't culture remain forever static?

1) seems an almost empirical question, once all parties agree as to what moral progress means.

Elizabeth said...

Good luck getting all parties to agree what moral progress means; it seems eerily similar to getting all parties to agree what "good" means.

And I think that is the least of the issues with my friend's argument.

the idiot said...

ha! i was just thinking your friend reminded me of Lady Catherine