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.
So I’m sure by now y’all have heard about the new book A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. There has been a review in The Economist and an excerpt in The Wall Street Journal, of all places. I haven’t read the book yet—have any of you? I’m kind of torn between wanting it for Christmas [hint hint], and feeling just a mite rebellious about it. For one thing, my friends will tell you that I’m a little contrary, and I can’t help but think of the pamphlet 100 Authors Against Einstein, who were all denying his General Theory of Relativity, and his response: “Why 100 authors? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!” But I guess this does not hold in reverse: 33 reasons to read Jane Austen doesn’t mean one reason not to read Jane Austen would be enough if you never have.
Also, the excerpt in The Wall Street Journal, by James Collins, is, as alert reader Rosemary pointed out, stuffy and patronizing. Oh please, like no one but James has used Jane Austen as a moral compass in his, or, thank you very much, HER, life! When we’ve all been discussing this very thing for months. OK, not “moral” sometimes, but thanks very much, the Austen fan base is not just a bunch of drooling romantics! OK, maybe we drool sometimes (you know what I mean), but we appreciate subtleties too, you know! Mr. Collins (LOL) is just like Lady Catherine, all affability and condescension. Pooh!
Then, once nicely annoyed at being patronized at, my hackles got raised by Robert Fulford, writing in The National Post. He really does seem to read Jane Austen without any eye to what she’s talking about, and calls her just “a vicious gossip.” Now, many of my friends would take that as a compliment, and maybe Miss Austen would too, but he seems also to take pleasure in patronizing the fans, assuming we can’t see and enjoy her sharp side as much as her romantic side. Julie Ponzi at No Left Turns has an interesting reaction to Mr. Fulford (though this link isn’t working for me now, so good luck . . .). She points out the “pen envy” and contradictions in his article.
So what do we think about all this? I think, yay, at least they’re (good old “they”) talking about her. As Harriet Evans says over at The Guardian, female authors often don’t get talked about. I think, people underestimate us, and underestimate her. Somehow, Miss Austen’s reputation as a serious author is still on the line. Almost 200 years after her death, do people still see her as an early chick-lit figure? Heck, maybe she was chick-lit because she just wrote about ordinary women and men doing ordinary things. Depends on what you think about chick-lit, I guess. At least they’re talking about her? That makes me so mad! But then, it’s always hard for comedy to get much respect.
Maybe the 33 would be better, would be spiced up in a truly Austen way, if there was some dissension among their ranks, or if they weren’t universally praising. Only Jane Bennet gets to be so sweet and still be interesting.