Desperation, greed marry in Austen's works

Critical Eye

November 13, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN ARTS WRITER

It's Jane Austen time again, and we know what you men are doing:

Half of you are hiding under the bed, and the other half are pretending to be dead.

You just know that your wife or significant other is going to drag you to see the new version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. It's a film, you are sure, as fluffy as a gosling. A film in which the hero emerges from a misty wood at dawn with his shirt unbuttoned, exposing his manly chest. A film without a single high-speed car chase.

In short, a chick flick.

And for this you have to give up watching the Jacksonville Jaquars clobber the Ravens?

In short, yes.

Because there's something a lot of people miss about Austen, something that director Joe Wright and scriptwriter Deborah Moggach get exactly right: the desperation underlying the decorum of 19th century England. A lot of people think of Pride and Prejudice, and the five other great novels in Austen's canon, as light-hearted romantic romps through pastoral landscapes. No wonder they're bored.

Moggach and company show that era's fixation with courtship and marriage for what it really was - a dead-serious exercise in back-stabbing and one-upmanship with high-stakes consequences. Pride and Prejudice makes Survivor look like a fairy tale.

Nor are Austen's concerns a matter of mere historic interest, relevant only to the dusty past. Remnants of those old dynamics exist to this day. . Some men still fear that women are interested only in their paychecks. Some women still pursue each and any unmarried man with the subtlety of a defensive end sandbagging the receiver. Think of Desperate Housewives' Edie going after Mike. And Karl. And Mr. Shaw. And ... well, you get the picture.

To recap Austen's novel: The Bennet family lives in respectable shabbiness on a country estate. When the patriarch dies - and as played by the 70-year-old Donald Sutherland, it's clear he could kick the bucket at any moment - the estate by the laws of the era will pass to a male cousin. Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters literally are at risk of being thrown into the street with no means of support.

Options were few

In those days, girls in their late 20s had aged out of the marriage market. Impoverished spinsters had two alternatives, both grim: if they had wealthy friends or relatives, they could travel from home to home, existing on their patronesses' sufferance. Or they could become poorly paid governesses.

As Moggach told the London Daily Telegraph on Sept. 9:

"In those days, as the novelist herself knew so well, an unmarried daughter faced a life of dependency and possible poverty. ... There is a great deal of turmoil and pain in her books, and if one taps into that, one also taps into the source of the comedy."

Remember, the Bennet parents had five - five! - unmarried daughters, and not a single son to help support the girls. If any one of the daughters were to "land" a prosperous husband, he would be expected to help his bride's sisters and mother. .

Is it any wonder that so many Sweet Young Things approached marriage with a gimlet eye fixed on their suitors' earning potential?

Romance as a luxury

Director Wright heightens the metaphor with a visual pun. He locates much of the action in the 19th-century equivalent of a stock market - which at the time was populated by, well, stock.

Sheep and flocks of pigeons flutter around the characters' feet and block their paths. (In one particularly earthy shot, the camera zooms in on hog testicles.) One cannot escape the notion that the animals weren't all that was being bought and sold.

That point is driven home in the book and film by Lizzie's friend, Charlotte Lucas.

Poor of pocket, plain of face, and 27 years old, Charlotte is on the verge of becoming an old maid. She already feels herself to be a burden on her family. After a mere two-day courtship, she accepts the marriage proposal of a social-climbing buffoon.

Austen doesn't sugarcoat Charlotte's ruminations:

"Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want."

Is it any wonder that romance could seem an unaffordable luxury? When Lizzie rejects marriage proposals from not one, but two eligible young men simply because she does not love them, it is an act of great courage. Or recklessness. Or even (in her mother's view) selfishness, since an advantageous match also would guarantee her sisters' survival.

"She is a very headstrong, foolish girl," Mrs. Bennet fumes, "and does not know her own interest, but I will make her know it."

Nor was it just women who suffered at the marriage game. A young man of modest fortune was free to marry whomever he pleased - as long as his choice had money. To do otherwise was to risk being locked out of many desirable professions, including politics. (At the time, members of the House of Commons were not paid.)

Ask the young Thomas Langlois Lefroy, who fell head over heels for the daughter of a penniless clergyman. He was forced to break off the budding romance at risk of being disinherited. His 20-year-old sweetheart was brokenhearted.

Her name? Jane Austen.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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