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The Blatherings Of A Blitherer

Jane Austen is not Romantic

September20

I’m re-reading my Big Book of Jane Austen and wondering, yet again, why some people continue portraying her work as romantic.

I mean, sure, they involve matrimony and at the end of the story there’s a marriage and not a funeral, so technically they are romances and not tragedies, but still.

Most of the established marriages are pretty awful, formed of people who barely tolerate each other at best and despise each other at worst. New relationships are entered into with negotiation, almost as business partnerships, even when actual affection is involved. And when a potential spouse who has objected to a match based on social standing relents, it’s not because passion has swept him/her away. Rather, it’s because he/she found out something further about the potential spouse like their family isn’t as unrelentingly tediously awful as first thought and there are some Members Of Quality present. For instance, Elizabeth Bennet and her atrocious family (except for sweet, naive Jane) but wait, she has the civilized lawyer uncle and aunt.

A lot of modern readers (and, let’s face it, viewers of dramatic versions of the books) forget or never knew that a good marriage was an upper class woman’s job. If she failed at it, she (or the daughters she misaligned) could face poverty or abuse with little alternative save returning home to live with her parents. If you’ve ever read Vanity Fair you’ve seen what Amelia Sedley– a woman with a very high class education and wealthy background– is reduced to in order to survive. (spoiler: she has absolutely no marketable skills and mostly goes hungry, surviving on handouts from relatives)

Austen’s heroines are women with very little options trying to make the best future for themselves they can. Maybe, like Marianne, they narrowly escape being “ruined” (spoiler: “seduced” (possibly raped), impregnated, and abandoned therefore to be hidden away because of The Shame) by A Cad only to find a decent marriage to a man literally old enough to be their fathers; maybe, like Jane Bennet, they luck out and have a few small difficulties before snagging a congenial easily-pushed-around wealthy dude with bitchy, unpleasant sisters;maybe they’re rescued out of grinding poverty (and a very close knit and loving family) to live among people who treat them like unwanted and threatening time bombs waiting to go off, only to find a love alliance with a cousin after all (but have spent over a decade being treated like crap by the rest of the family). She writes with humor and there are comedic elements and, yes, the novels have a Happy End. But there’s a grim undertone of desperation under the social skewering and witty banter.

If these women fail at catching a good husband, they are fucked.

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