Austenacious
Jane will keep us together.
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In a letter written to her sister Cassandra in 1813, Jane Austen wrote:
By-the-bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many douceurs in being a sort of chaperon, for I am put on the sofa near the fire, and can drink as much wine as I like.
Oh Jane, you’re such a wise@ss! And I love you even more for this snippet of insight into your character. During the holidays, with the abundance of gatherings and social outings, I can’t help but respond to the idea of sitting by the fire and drinking my wine in peace.

I do wonder, though, about how society determined when someone transitioned from being a young lady in need of chaperoning to being an old maid who did the chaperoning. Sure, it was a different time and place, but there’s no reason to think that old maids or widows weren’t interested in some hanky panky with available (or unavailable *gasp*) men, too. People haven’t changed that much, even if the rules of social decorum have. I guess I should be grateful that whatever people make of my single state, at least I’m not required to bring an escort to watch over my every move.

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Okay, internet, you can stop shouting now. We understand! There MAY—or may not—be a newly discovered portrait of Jane Austen living in the home of a Shakespeare scholar and his wife! It’s pretty different from the old one, thank goodness! We were going to have a nice chat about Jane and Feminist Ryan Gosling, or something, but we understand that this is The Thing this week. Ryan and his thoughts on gender can wait, gosh darn it, and the urgency of a three-hundred-year-old portrait just takes precedence.

I think the hullabaloo has less to do with the portrait’s historical significance, particular biographical importance, or any academic furor over it, and more to do with the portrait itself. The existing verified portrait of Jane, the so-called Cassandra portrait painted by her sister, is…well, it’s painted with a sister’s honesty, shall we say? This new one would, by comparison, definitely have been her dust-jacket photo—it’s completely believable in terms of having the same subject as the Cassandra portrait, but with all the benefits of a kind and skilled portrait artist, and without the possible effects of somebody who’s still pissed that you drank the last of the pulp-free orange juice at breakfast. As the Guardian so succinctly put it—and here I think they’re just saying what everybody else is thinking—Jane Austen wasn’t as ugly as people think. But the question is: Why do we care?

It seems to me that, for the most part, author sexiness is a moderately lucrative form of icing in today’s publishing market—a benefit, sure, but not an industry requirement. (And, might I add, thank goodness for that.) Nobody seems to obsess over the fact that Margaret Atwood’s had basically the same haircut for forty years, for example, and I think I could pick J.K. Rowling out of a lineup, if none of the decoys looked too much like her. I’m sitting here trying to think of a hot male author, and failing—not, I suspect, because they don’t exist, but because I read a lot of jacketless paperbacks. And yet the books sell, and we read, and everybody seems pretty happy.

So why do we want so badly for Jane to have been a fox? Much of the neurosis, I think, has to do with the stages set in her work; we want the woman who created all these winning romantic heroines to have the face of a winning romantic heroine. This is why the movie Becoming Jane exists: surely she was beautiful; surely she had a secret boyfriend who looked like James McAvoy; surely her life was a novel filled with affection and loving respect. Another theory is one I’m less sure about: that we want Jane to have been beautiful because identifying with a plain, single woman hits close to home in a subculture dominated by women and the issue of marriage. I see the trajectory of the argument; I also see the belittling underbelly of the argument. Heck, maybe we just want the poor woman to have a nice picture to put on her Facebook profile. Readers? What do you think?

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Mariella Frostrup over at The Guardian recently wrote this in an advice column:

Despite achieving a position in the modern world where we are not only self-supporting but also increasingly outshining the men, we act like a gaggle of competitive girls whose most important goal is how blokes view us. Female-to-female behaviour hasn’t evolved much since Jane Austen’s day and the sad result is we continue to fail to provide sisterhood.

The rest of the column is similarly depressing. Mariella does suggest that the 40-something woman who feels life is slipping out of her grasp should age gracefully while at the same time make a noise, and “Rage, rage, rage when they attempt to turn out the light.” Sounds like a plan to me.

What about this talk of lack of sisterhood, now and in Jane Austen? Surely Jane and Cassandra Austen themselves are in the Sisterhood Hall of Fame? And Jane wrote about all sorts of sisters. Here’s Lizzie and Jane Bennet: “. . . do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” Not the words of someone who’s putting a bloke above a sister. Elinor and Marianne are another loving pair of sisters, though it’s true that Marianne does put her romantic notions above Elinor’s feelings sometimes. But isn’t that her great failing, what Jane Austen is warning us against? It’s also true that there’s some unpleasant sisters in the books. Maria and Julia Bertram certainly get into a catfight over Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and, more chillingly, Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price take their separation from each other with perfect calm. As with the Elliot sisters in Persuasion, Austen seems to assume that there’s no reason that sisters would hang together, if circumstances or temperament didn’t allow it. And it’s true that we see very little genuine womanly friendship in Austen: Lizzie and Charlotte Lucas and Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney are the only examples I can think of. I guess it would make sense when getting a husband was like getting a job that you mightn’t be very nice to the competition, especially in a limited pool. So, I concede, Austen was pretty cynical about the whole sisterhood thing.

But what about now? Miss Osborne, Miss Ball, and I don’t have any sisters. We came together as Beloved Sisters through a shared love of Jane Austen, eating, and talking smack. So we can’t comment on the modern state of sisterhood between actual sisters. But between women in general? I think it’s a pretty mixed bag. I personally haven’t seen much catfight action, have you? And also, isn’t it a bit sexist to assume that women should get along all the time? As if men do!

OK, obviously it’d be nice if we all got along. As it says in our header, Jane will keep us together. This may be terribly ironic, considering the above, but I suggest we try it. Send loving thoughts to all those of your acquaintance, even if there are few people you really love, and still fewer of whom you think well. It’s either that or back to the meat market, apparently.

Photo credit: ©David Stephensen. Used under Creative Commons licensing.