4/08/2012

The Daughter of Samuel Johnson

From the strange realm of Facebook I was treated to the following article, much to my dismay. You may want to go and read that in order to make any sense of the following post.

DISCLAIMER
In case you don't see it coming, I'm about to disagree with nearly everything this article has to say. When literature is misused, I get riled. Especially if the misuse of said literature is a gross misrepresentation of Jane Austen's novels. If you liked the aforementioned article, don't read this. Remember: this is a personal blog, I'll talk about whatever I feel like -- including my knee jerk reaction to articles like this.
Mrs. Dashwood with her two oldest daughters


The introduction mentions other posts on cynicism and how singles especially should guard themselves against it. One helpful way of doing this, states the author, is to "surround ourselves with stories of hope." Furthermore, she states that this "small epiphany" came while watching Andrew Davies' adaption of Austen's Sense and Sensibility -- which is, to date, the best adaption out there. So far so good!






First Point: Marriage Matters
Our writer, Candice Gage, then proceeds to give examples from Pride and Prejudice. What? I thought we were talking about Sense and Sensibility? Silly me, okay, moving on!

Gage quotes the opening line of Pride and Prejudice to back her point that marriage is (and ought to be) the norm. Sounds good. But the purpose of "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" is satire. Austen is repeating the gossip of mothers with single daughters -- mothers who, of course, would like very much to see their daughters married to men of a good fortune. This comedy reaches a whole new level with Gage's misapplication of it!

Second Point: A Good Match Is Worth Waiting For
Here Gage uses the example of Charlotte Lucas' marriage to the foolish Mr. Collins -- the arrogant curate -- from Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte accepts the proposal on the grounds of practicality...she is plain and poor, worried about not being cared for, and firmly doesn't believe in romance. Marital security is more important to her than the person she actually marries. Not the best example to single Christian girls.

Gage goes on to say that marriage is not all about romance. Sure, but consider Charlotte Lucas again. After her marriage, the new Mrs. Collins assigns outdoor tasks to her husband to keep him distant -- further more, she sets up what she refers to as her "headquarters" in a mostly unused part of the house to keep away from him.

Charlotte Lucas is the opposite of Elizabeth Bennett (who only wishes to marry for love). Both extremes are wrong. Interestingly, Gage uses Lydia (one of the young Bennett sisters who runs off in unmarried scandal with a soldier) as the opposite of Lucas -- but the point about Lydia is that she didn't do that terrible thing out of love. Lydia was simply in love with the idea of being love. I myself frequently use Lydia as an example of those young Christian women who are only too keen on the idea of being in love.

Third Point: A Man Cannot Be Measured By His Appearance
It was at this point that our author very wisely chooses examples from other novels! Pride and Prejudice is the only novel of Miss Austen's that includes any physical descriptions of the characters, making the point that Darcy's attraction to Elizabeth was solely based on the way the girl looked. Darcy himself is the most handsome and dashing of Austen's heroes. Furthermore, it is (hilariously) after Elizabeth walks through Darcy's breathtaking estate and beautiful house that she begins to persuade herself that, well, really, how bad can the guy be? Recall, the working title for Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. Austen means for us to pick up on this. And, amusingly, I think our author noticed.

Fourth Point: You Can Persevere Regardless of Circumstances
It is here that I gained some hope. Gage notes the dark moments in Austen's novels, when the story has taken its worse possible turn, and how our heroines (usually, but not always) endure wisely. My only qualm with this is that Gage portrays Austen's novels as romances -- they aren't. Austen's novels are satire, solely concerned with morality and manners. Austen's characters demonstrate fulfilling or failing one's Christian duty, whether that duty regards one's gossipy neighbor, romantic sister, distant father, overbearing mother, or future husband. So, yes, Austen's heroines persevere through disappointment in hope for a future husband -- but that is the least of their trials.

Fifth Point: Happy Endings Can Happen
Gage states how therapeutic it can be to "curl up and watch something turn out right." While I agree with this, I worry about how it's done. I don't read Austen to breathlessly discover how the heroine and hero come together at last -- I read Austen to see the struggles of said heroine and hero. I would caution reading (or watching films) for the romance. Making romances one's catharsis is a very quick way to stoke the flames of discontentment, not to mention build up unreasonable expectations. Certainly, happy endings can happen -- but not a one of us is entitled to one.

Gage says: "True, the stories are only make-believe." Those of you who have read some of my posts on fiction will understand why, at this point, I ceased to find the article merely amusing and instead howled in frustration and tore my hair out.

Gage then says, "...but, as anyone with an English Degree can tell you, a fictional story can contain a lot of truth." The pain....the pain....! Recall Flannery O'Connor when she was faced with similar comments and her exasperated response: "I am always irritated by people who imply that writing [or reading] fiction is an escape from reality...it is a plunge into reality." Irritated is right, Flannery.

Gage's next sentence: "I think it's relevant that Austen herself never married..." Really? Pray, how do you find that relevant? She doesn't expound. All she says is, "but her heroines never give up hope." Implying that Austen lived vicariously through her heroines? What? Or....is the advice here, never give up hope about getting married, i.e. getting what you want? How is that a good thing?! (Yes, I felt the need for an interrobang!) A biography of Austen's life would be a healthy read for some of these Christian singles: a woman who refused offers of marriage for very wise reasons, who lived morally and dutifully, who suffered from horrible illness, who lived happily single. I know, I know, it's like I'm talking seriously about unicorns -- happy, contented singles do exist.

Gage concludes: "Surrounding ourselves with stories with happy endings can go a long way towards winning the battle with cynicism." I'm guilty -- after reading this, my hope that single girls would be wiser has waned considerably.

My own conclusion: Why I Read Austen
C. S. Lewis says it best (emphasis mine):
"... It is perhaps worth emphasizing what may be called the hardness - at least the firmness - of Jane Austen's thought exhibited in all these undeceptions. The great abstract nouns of the classical English Moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used; good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, 'some duty neglected, some failing indulged', impropriety, indelicacy, generous candor, blamable trust, just humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason. These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. ... All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one's neighbors. ... Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen's is at once less soft and less cruel. ... It remains to defend what I have been saying against a possible charge. Have I been treating the novels as though I had forgotten that they are, after all, comedies? I trust not. The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. 'Principles' or 'seriousness' are essential to Jane Austen's art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work. 'Total irony' - irony about everything - frustrates itself and becomes insipid. ... If charity is the poetry of conduct and honor the rhetoric of conduct, then Jane Austen's 'principles' might be described as the grammar of conduct. Now grammar is something that anyone can learn; it is also something that everyone must learn. ... She is described by someone in Kipling's worst story as the mother of Henry James. I feel much more sure that she is the daughter of Dr. Johnson: she inherits his common sense, his morality, even much of his style. ..."
C.S. Lewis A Note On Jane AustenIn Essays in Criticism 


2 comments:

  1. I really should thank Candice Gage for one of the most invigorating reads of the week. I feel so disoriented after reading through her post again, I'm not even sure I know what it's about any more!

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  2. Another thought: had Gage stuck with her initial thesis, "my epiphany, while watching 'Sense and Sensibility'" I really think it would have vastly improved the article. There are three heroines that contemporary Christian women do not enjoy in Austen's novels:

    1) Emma Wodehouse -- the young woman who thinks she is wise but isn't, a fact the reader discovers too late. Ingenious novel writing.

    2) Anne Eliot -- the most feminine, most virtuous, most mature...indeed, she is the epitome of Austen's heroines. Small wonder that our small, envious hearts don't like reading about her.

    3) And, of course, Elinor Dashwood -- the "too sensible" older sister in "Sense and Sensibility." Practical, sensible, and forebearing to the point that her neighbors -- indeed, even her silly sisters -- think she is cold and unfeeling. A painful, striking surprise when we find she has had to bear the most, suffer the most, and make the difficult decisions, all the while possessing a depth of passion that makes the reader feel horribly guilty upon discovering it.....ah, yes, I would like to see an article on that.

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