Thursday, February 7, 2013
Rereading and the Status of Women
As a 21st-century American woman—ie, a woman with more choices and more freedom to determine my own destiny than in any other place or time in history—I have been reading or rereading novels about the women of different places and times with a certain compassion and sometimes horror at how constricted their lives were and how little power they had to make decisions about how and with whom they would spend their lives.
I’ll start with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, admitting that in this case I didn’t read the book but saw the movie, which was visually lush and ought to win the Oscar for costume design.
Now let’s look at Jane Austen, whose books I know well.
Imagine being born to a family of gentility—lots of social rules, limited society to interact with—but small fortune. As an unmarried daughter, you live at home. You owe endless “duty” to relatives and family dependents, no matter how silly, boring, or malicious they may happen to be. The only variety in your days is driving half a mile in the carriage for formal visits and the occasional dinner party to a set of people smaller than the number I can meet any day by simply going around the corner to the grocery store. For financial reasons, you must marry, but you meet a minuscule number of eligible men, unless your family can afford to take you to London for a “season” on the marriage mart—beyond the means of Austen families. While Austen allowed her heroines love and happy endings, reality more often consisted of an alliance with a man you might or might not be at all attracted to, who might or might not treat you well, and whom you hardly knew. Add to that the abysmal ignorance of unmarried women about sex. I’m sure many marriages consisted of a dreadful shock on the wedding night followed by anything from dreariness to nightmare, except for a few very lucky women.
And suppose, like Austen, you didn’t marry? She had her writing, you will say. Yes, but we all know how she had to write in secret, hiding her manuscript under the blotter when people came to call or family duty demanded her attention. No running out to Starbuck’s for a convivial latte to spur on the work. No DO NOT DISTURB sign on a closed door to repel distractions to the writer’s concentration. The skies would have fallen if Austen had treated her father or brother or even the housekeeper as I do my husband, who gets an urgent “GO AWAY!” if he tries to interrupt at the wrong moment.
Re-read Emma, and imagine yourself in Emma’s place. Yes, Emma is impatient, even cruel, to the boring Miss and Mrs. Davis, and she gets a thundering scold from Mr. Knightly for it. But would you elect a life in which you were forced to visit people you had so little interest in several times a week for life? And what about Emma’s father, with whom she does much better at kindness and solicitude? He’s a bundle of anxiety and hypochondria, must be endlessly reassured, and fails to supply a scrap of understanding or companionship. If she doesn’t manage to marry, she’ll be stuck with him for life. There aren’t a whole lot of people to love in Emma’s world, but she’s stuck with it, as Austen was with hers.
I had similar feelings on reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. I missed those earlier in my reading career (and missed them on television too), but was inspired by their availability on Kindle to try them. Writing fifty years after Austen, he still depicted a world in which women were under tremendous pressure to marry and completely dependent on father, husband, or another male relative for their economic needs. The choice of eligible husbands was still small, and the penalties for making the smallest mistake in social behavior or breaking of the boundaries of class were still severe. I could tolerate only a couple of them (Barchester Towers and The Eustace Diamonds) before deciding that the plight of women in these novels made them too painful to continue reading.