Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rereading and the Status of Women

Elizabeth Zelvin

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.
In this 19th-century Sex and the City, the beautiful Anna has beautiful dresses galore and follows her impulse to jump into bed with the man who arouses her passion. But poor Anna! She “breaks the rules” (I’d love to know if that line from the movie appears in the novel; I suspect it’s an addition to make what happens more comprehensible to modern audiences) and is terribly, terribly punished. Her husband throws her out, her world shuns her, her lover loses interest, and she is left no recourse but to throw herself under a train. Vronsky, being a man, gets off scot free; the husband is widely considered a saint. Does Anna deserve her fate? Sure, she’s foolish and selfish. But her upbringing has taught her nothing but to live expensively, act shallowly, and marry the man she’s supposed to. What a nightmare!

Now let’s look at Jane Austen, whose books I know well.
I’ve recently reread all the major works, thanks to Kindle: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey. All the novels are set in the world in which Austen herself existed. As a college English major (before the women’s movement, I might add, but with a sense of having the whole world before me), I took the premises of time and class in Austen’s novels for granted. But this time around, I was struck by how circumscribed, indeed, claustrophic, that world was for women of Austen’s class. Further, the fact that Austen lived her whole life in the same excruciating plight as her heroines struck me as unbearably poignant.

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.


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I guess I'd be more concerned about how women are treated in today's fiction. Too many authors, including Hollywood screenwriters, just add in a female character to give the protagonist a romantic interest. Lee Child, for example, made Jack Reacher famous, but let's face it--he's never going to make a commitment. On the other hand, John Land's Sheriff's Deputy Strong is more like a transvestite male character.
You see where I'm going. It's time that all authors, including males, recognize that a strong, but possibly flawed, female character is important in fiction because she can assume traits we all admire--moral strength, seemingly infinite energy, and whiplash intelligence. I work at this all the time because I admire smart women!

Sandra Parshall said...

Amen to that, Steve. Today's fiction has too many female stereotypes and empty-vessel women who seem to be thrown in as a nod to the existence of a second gender. Taylor Stevens's books are a powerful antidote to that sort of fiction. :-)

BTW, I may be alone in this, but I find Bridget Jones, the ultimate modern "without a man I'm nothing" protagonist, beyond annoying.

Jerry House said...

In college I was taught that everything you need to know about a society can be learned from how that society treats women. In the forty-years since, I have found no reason to dispute that.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I missed out reading Trollope in college -- I think he was out of favor at that time. I have truly enjoyed the BBC-produced dramatizations of his novels, though.

And oh! my! goodness! Have you read Joanna Trollope's work? She is faboo! She's a member of the same family and obviously there's something to this genetic theory stuff. She is great!