Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jane Austen and the feminists

Norm posted some thoughts about Jane Austen then and now, in which he reports about:

Emma Campbell Webster [who] is troubled by Austen's happy endings: troubled, more particularly, by the fact that the marriages that conclude each of the six stories of her central female protagonists are indeed endings. This is not, Campbell Webster explains, specific to Austen; it's a plot device that's 'been around for aeons'. But, in any case, why it's troubling is in suggesting closure, the end of freedom, adventure, possibility.

It is not the first time that I came cross this position, deriding the happy ending that Austen awards to her heroines and the shrinking of horizons that these endings seem to imply for them.

Hard core Feminists don’t like Austen’s endings. They often accuse her of conservatism, prudishness, and eschewing politics, and therefore complicit, in patriarchy.

As far as I'm concerned, this sort of reading reflects only the restrictive dogmatism of these feminist Amazons. For them, no woman can carve for herself a creative and fulfilling space in the kind of society that existed in nineteenth century Europe and America. The only self-affirmation they allow the strong, life-desiring woman is a denial of her sexuality by shunning marriage altogether, or better still, suicide. Another Emma (Bovary) may have gained their approval by opting to put an end to her life.

Austen rejected this solution, even as she rejected marriage as a personal choice for herself. She is very much involved in the questions of women's status, but she does so not in a revolutionary way (which is the only measure those feminists will admire) but in giving her talented heroines the power to think and decide for themselves. Long before Martha Nussbaum conceived of the capabilities approach, Austen understood that powerlessness could be fought only with education. Her least appealing heroine, Fanny Price, was emotionally neglected and even sadistically abused and marginalized by her adoptive family at Mansfield Park, but she had access to good education, books, and a sympathetic kindred spirit with whom she could air her knowledge and ideas. This gave her the advantage she needed to understand herself, her world and her options. And eventually, to choose, and choose well.

Another heroine is deemed by feminists reduced as a person - Elizabeth Bennet. Instead of dispatching such an intelligent, sparkling, curious and critically-minded woman to far away lands for adventure, Austen has her marry Darcy. What they fail to see is that Elizabeth is comfortable in her society without being smug or insouciant about its shortcomings. She does not hesitate to break the rules of "received" decorum when her reason and feeling demand it. As for example, when she decides to walk the three miles to visit her sick sister, stranded in a stranger’s house. She arrives there with her petticoat six inches in mud, and is ridiculed by the Bingley sisters for her audacity in defying the social norms. However, Elizabeth remains unbothered; she is secure in the knowledge that her actions were dictated by real necessity and genuine concern for her sister, not by some need to flaunt society's rules for the sake of flaunting them.

By marrying Darcy, Elizabeth assumes the position of a CEO in the managing of Pemberley. It's not the riches and lure of aristocratic status that tempt her, but rather the opportunity to live a useful life to which her education and inquisitive mind prepared her, to share the power to do good which she had perceived and approved in Darcy's management care. All this is lost on the feminists who will reduce Elizabeth into a sort of an effectively muted Victorian heroine in their frustration with Austen's self restraint.

George Eliot invented the stuffy, insufferable character of Casaubon, who, with typical hubris, was seeking to uncover the "key to all mythologies". But even he was on a quest for that elusive "key", the universal code breaker. He never pretended that he found it. Yet here we have the suffocating thinking of post-modernist feminists who think they can excavate into Austen's intentions and judge her by the set of rules, a key, a narrative formula to shape her in the image of their own anxieties.

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