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From Phyllida's Desk

Unfinished Business

I consider myself a “good talker,” someone who thinks on her feet, enjoys speaking in public and can even come up with the occasional witticism. But I find that I’m rarely at my best in book club meetings. People raise questions that require me to think before expressing an opinion (always a challenge). While I’m cogitating, other people, who can apparently whip out their well-formed and trenchant concurrences or objections with the speed of a Brooklyn traffic agent ticketing a double-parker, weigh in and hash out the problem—or settle somebody’s hash. By the time I’ve pulled my thoughts together, the group has moved on.

In the spirit of end-of-year hash-settling, I thought I’d bring up the issues left dangling at the end of last week’s JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) book club meeting. There’s no agenda, other than my own frustration at having missed several opportunities to push out the full-term nine-pound baby on some subjects that have been gestating in my mental womb for some time. Rather than reabsorbing this whole litter, placenta and all, I thought I’d just drop off these inconvenient little runts here, surely a kinder fate than the one that befell the fictional alley cat Mehitabel’s kittens (probably drowned in a garbage can during a rainstorm).

These book club meetings usually start with a topic for discussion. (With only six published novels and a handful of fragments and juvenilia to work with, an Austen book club dedicated to reading and discussing primary sources would be verging on a Groundhog Day-level of déjà vu.) The topic for this last meeting was an article by Margaret Madrigal Wilson on “The Hero and the Other Man,” the charming, sexy but shallow or untrustworthy secondary male character who competes with the hero for the heroine’s affection. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park and Frank Churchill in Emma are prime examples. Why, the author asked, are these men so outwardly appealing, while the heroes in these books are dull (Edward Ferrars in S&S), duller (Edmund Bertram in MP), fatherly and lacking in sex appeal (George Knightley in Emma), or at best “a bit stiff,” and not in a good way (Fitzwilliam Darcy in P&P). Only in Persuasion do we get a hero who combines the glamour and sex appeal of these “others” with the honorable decency and kindness of the hero in the person of Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Right away, many of us thought that Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey was another exception. He’s not heroic in the dashing military manner of Wentworth, but he is witty and clever without being cruel, an agreeable companion, whether in a group or alone with the heroine, without endangering her life or her reputation, and he’s mature enough to have settled into an occupation (clergyman) that provides a reasonable income and that he is admirably suited for. Wilson’s article was written several years ago, before the rise of a sizable Tilney fan base that I suspect surprises many established Austen scholars.

One of my little pieces of unfinished business in the book club discussion, the runt of a litter of runts, was the assertion by a supremely intelligent young woman, A.B., that her one dissatisfaction with Tilney was his love for so insipid a heroine as Catherine Morland. It made her lose respect for him as a hero. Of course, this is the most personal of personal opinions, how we feel about a fictional character in a love story, and as such, not open to refutation. And I could understand how such an attractive and intelligent young woman as A.B. might react in this way. I pointed out that Catherine is young (seventeen) and “unfinished”—she will acquire intellectual maturity and sophistication in her marriage to this intellectual and sophisticated man.

But I did wish I had mentioned that from the other side, that of being middle-aged and single, it was refreshing to read a story in which the heroine can be so completely ordinary, not exceptionally beautiful or intelligent, not clever or spritely or creative, and yet win the love of an extraordinary man. What a change from the unrelenting pattern of the past millenniums, in which a woman must be highly educated, possess, if not perfect features and figure, then certainly “attractive” ones, and have a good amount of money in order to win—a man. Any man, so long as he’s breathing. Women were taught to “settle” for some pretty unappealing bargains rather than end up as despised spinsters by setting their standards too high (as, for example, an equal).

Northanger Abbey is primarily a satire of the gothic novel of the late 18th century, but its interest for me, and I would imagine for others, is its celebration of the idea that a “regular guy” sort of heroine can be worthy of a hero simply by being goodhearted and “almost pretty” and by the act of loving. By showing herself capable of genuine love she wins the love of a genuine hero. (It’s also fascinating to read Austen’s description at the beginning of the book of her heroine’s many shortcomings. Apparently the chick lit of its day featured heroines who were prodigies of intellect as well as physical beauty—maybe not such a bad thing, in retrospect.)

By the time I had begun to formulate these thoughts, the discussion had moved on to consider J.V.’s observation that Jane Austen, like most women, had a fondness for the bad boys. The remark was thrown out as a mixture of provocation and question, but I agreed with it and said so. The unresolved issue, as has bedeviled Austen scholarship for decades, was: Why does she make the heroes so dull? If Austen wants to show us the rewards of choosing the good guys, why are they such an unappealing bunch? Do we always have to pick the boring nice guy over the charming rake?

There’s no excuse except, I suppose, mental fatigue for my failure to pipe up here, because surely the answer is obvious. If making the right choice for Mr. Right were easy, everyone would do it and there would be no unwed mothers, no ruined fifteen-year-olds, no STDs, no broken marriages. It would be great if good guys were always drop-dead gorgeous, sparkling wits, and exuded the sex appeal of Jonathan Rhys Myers. But life isn’t like that most of the time. In her novels, Austen tends to give us the well-written version of that same old “settling” message I mentioned above, that therapists and preachers and advice books have been saying for years: Choose with your head, not your…junk. When you learn a man’s true character over time, respect and gratitude can lead to love, where love-at-first-sight often leads only to, at the very least, disappointment, often to tragedy. Once in a while Austen gives us a break, just as real-life exceptions exist, and we are allowed the treat of a sexy, glamorous good guy, as in Persuasion and NA. But remember, kids: this is only for special occasions, not every day.

What next? Mr. Darcy, what else? During the dull heroes vs. glamorous villains debate, A.B. (again) pointed out that Mr. Darcy was the darkest hero; of all Austen’s good guys, he has the most “bad guy” traits. (Again, A+ to A.B. for a terrific observation.) Not everybody agreed, but most came around as the idea was explored. Darcy is arrogant, angry (if admirably controlled), snooty (not “snotty” as someone said—Jeez! He’s a damned aristo, not a Katzenjammer Kid!) and he can be cruel, as shown in his treatment of Mr. Bingley, high-handed in conversation and deceitful and interfering in his “management” of the almost-thwarted relationship with Jane Bennet.

I wanted to point out that these character flaws are there because Mr. Darcy is the most aristocratic of Austen’s heroes, the grandson and nephew of an earl. Attentive readers of Austen’s works know that her opinion of titled nobility is right up there with sewer rats and smallpox. Or perhaps the Great Pox, as syphilis was referred to then. In Austen’s world, noblemen and women are frighteningly amoral (Lady Susan), overbearing and incapable of empathy (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), vain, self-important and incapable of empathy (Sir Walter Elliot, baronet, the heroine’s father in Persuasion) or clueless, ignorant and incapable of empathy (the young Lord Osborne in the fragment called “The Watsons”).

That’s the bottom line for Austen. The gentry and middle classes who populate her works can be flawed in various ways, but it’s the top ranks, the lords and their offspring, brought up in their to-the-manner-born world, who are cut off from any connection to their fellow human beings. Mr. Darcy is saved from his curse of upper-class birth by his love for the superior heroine, Elizabeth, the opposite of a Catherine Morland, superbly witty, pretty and sprightly, and spirited. Her “humbling” of Mr. Darcy, for which he thanks her at the end of the novel, is like an exorcism, driving out the bad spirits of his noble background and bringing him into the light of day of a love-match with a partner who is his equal in every way except the ones that would be all-important in the real world of Austen’s setting: fortune (money) and family connections.

Finally, the issue I feel worst about not contributing to, was a remark by B.H. that in Austen’s time, people viewed sex as just another bodily function. This idea was part of the discussion on the “dull heroes,” and was shouted down as absurd, although B.H. was attempting to quote a scholar, not just voicing an original opinion. As anybody who’s read my note at the end of Pride/Prejudice knows, I said the same thing, arguing that the absence of sex scenes or any aura of sexiness in general in Austen’s fiction was more a reflection of the zeitgeist of her literary world than of the characters’ own libidos. I haven’t read any scholarly work on the subject that I can recall; my opinion was distilled from reading various works of 18th century literature. There’s a lot of “sex” in the works (and lives) of male authors of the period, but it’s not considered meaningful in what we would call the psychological sense.

The rejection of the concept at the book-club meeting was based, I think, on the erroneous assumption that B.H. was claiming nobody enjoyed the physical act of love or made any effort to ensure his (or her) partner’s pleasure. And while we recognize that the concepts of sexual technique were invented well before the 20th century, I often think it’s hard for today’s generations, even the older ones, to imagine a world in which sex and sexuality is not accepted as an essential and beneficial human attribute. Many of the “rakes” and “libertines” of Austen’s time and earlier were obsessed, less with having a satisfying experience (certainly not for the woman) but with conquest—with, shall we say, “getting in.” “Deflowering” a virgin, anathema for today’s sophisticated man, was a popular pursuit, as readers of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka “Fanny Hill”) will recall. I imagine that in her sexy, charming “other men,” especially Henry Crawford, who is not tall or handsome but who exudes sex appeal, Austen was hinting at the existence of a rare quality in a man: an interest in women as sexual beings; a desire not simply to conquer but to give pleasure.

For most people in their practical daily lives, sex was just another bodily function. It was a physical activity they hoped to enjoy with someone they loved, but the idea of choosing a marriage partner because he or she was a good or experienced lover would seem foolish and sinful. Austen doesn’t attempt to deny that when we are attracted to someone we think about these things—it’s human nature—but she is telling us, as most people thought then, that this is a superficial concern, like height or hair color. A successful marriage will be based on good character on both sides, along with the sensible and efficient management of finances and household. The sex would take care of itself. It might be exciting in the beginning, and with luck, comfortable and pleasant as time went on. If not, so what?

Today’s attitudes are different, like from another galaxy. I know a woman, sexually very active, who says that sexual compatibility is the first and most important factor in a new relationship. She’ll happily date a Republican (I haven’t asked about Tea Partiers) if the sex is good. “Common interests,” shared outlook or politics, and all that other psychobabble are meaningless if there’s no chemistry. As an example of the old way of thinking, my mother told me about her grandmother, who lived in a small Pennsylvania town in the second half of the 19th century into the 1920s, embarrassed at the fact that she bore her ninth and last child at the age of 38. Why was she embarrassed? It was proof that she was still having sex, with her lawful-wedded husband, at this advanced age, when such youthful follies should be put aside.

Do we want to go back to that world? Not me. But it was a real way of looking at things that we can barely imagine now. I felt bad not to have backed up B.H.’s argument, but it’s taken me a week and more to get these thoughts together.

To my readers: Many thanks for putting up with these long blog posts. I’ve tried to keep things short, but I’m a novelist, not a blogger; a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. This time I gave in to the flow of thoughts in my head and let them all out at once. Perhaps in the new year I’ll do better as I become immersed in my next novel.
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