Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reading Jane in Manila

There's probably something perverse in this, but I've been compelled to reread Jane Austen here. I've made my way through Pride and Prejuice and Sense and Sensibility already (and have watched the BBC version of P & P) and am working through Mansfield Park now. On the shelf yet to read, I've got Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Lizzie bought me Emma for a birthday a few years ago, and it's still sitting on my shelf at home, waiting, so I haven't invested in a Manila copy. Yet. I think I'll crack, though, because the BBC version of the novel waits for me on DVD.

I've always loved Austen, even if some of her sentences leave me scratching my head, and even if the social intricacies of her small, drawing room worlds are as claustral as stuffy old closets filled with Great-great-great Grandma's boots. I'm even willing to forgive Mr. Bennet for his misguided words of caution to Elizabeth, when he suggests that she won't be happy in a marriage with a man she can't respect as her "superior," especially because I know that Lizzy gives as good as she gets, reinventing the term "saucy" even when she beats herself up (unnecessarily) for telling Mr. Darcy where to get off.

What is it about these old novels of manners, set in a country I've never visited, depressingly upper class, marooned in the past, that call to me here? Why do I feel safer when I'm ensconsed in a Bennet bedroom with Lizzy and her self-effacing sister than when I'm walking home, up the main drag, after a rousing class on Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes?

Is this the ultimate escape, the circular story, the talking cure?

Am I trying to lose myself in another century, a forgotten set of problems (marry or not marry = central female narrative), a simpler set of expedients?

Does it help to watch these forgotten women wrangle the social conventions for a little piece of the pie, dearly bought, and realize that my world is so radically different from theirs--that my ability to speak my desire, to set the parameters of my marriage, to work in a job that I love, to teach and to write, to go where I want to go when I want to go there, alone or in company--that I live in a world Jane Austen could never imagine?

If we were to transport Jane here using a time machine, she'd probably blow a gasket. (In Mansfield Park, the heroine is appalled that her family plans to put on a play in the living room. It's so "inappropriate"! Trouble on wheels. As I read these passages, I cluck to myself. I know I'm supposed to think Miss Crawford is a total bitch for wanting to be in the play, and for convincing the hunky male lead to play opposite her in it despite his best moral principles, but I can't help but go against Austen and her priggish heroine as I delight in his shattering conservatism.)

Am I using these novels both to revel in the familiar AND to feel a superiority to these women and their impotence, their inability to navigate or escape the suffocating social strictures of their times? Do I like watching the cultural insiders blow up as surely as I do, daily, as a cultural outsider?

Maybe I'm just clinging to the familiar, the soap opera, the cheap romance--perhaps it's as plebian as that.

1 comment:

  1. I love "Mansfield Park." Miss Crawford is a bitch, period. Have you seen the recently published "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith? I'll be skipping that one...