- Jane Austen wrote chick-lit
Look, I feel for the authors and readers of chick-lit. The amount of crap they put up with is completely out of proportion to the cheesiness of their genre. When books like The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series get treated seriously in major newspapers, and Michael Crichton testifies before Congress on environmental issues, it really does seem churlish to dump on this new evolution of the romance novel (actually, it seems a lot more than churlish, but I don't have enough evidence to talk about where I really think this backlash is coming from). And the fact is that in terms of plot, chick-lit, like romance before it, is the literary descendant of Austen's fiction. But to turn that correlation around and call Austen's fiction proto-chick-lit is so far beyond the pale that it would be laughable if there weren't people out there saying it seriously. I'm not talking about the issue of the quality of Austen's writing as opposed to your average chick-lit novel (that way lies 'but this is good/why, then, it's not SF')--I'm talking about the fundamental building blocks of the genre.
The stereotypical chick-lit heroine is the representative of a lost generation--women who, although they have rejected the traditional subservient, domestic role of the female in their actions, have done so almost unconsciously, and are now searching for a new paradigm for their lives. Austen's heroines, in contrast, know their place in the world--as wives and mothers--and are eager to assume it. More importantly, chick-lit is almost universally concerned with the gratification of desires--I want a great job, I want a studly yet sensitive boyfriend, I want a child--whereas Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice in particular, are morality plays. The reward for becoming a better person, Austen tells us, for shedding the petty selfishness of childhood and emerging into maturity, is a good, stable marriage, the right and privilege of becoming the bedrock of a new generation of Englishmen and -women. This is so far from chick-lit's themes of self-actualization and self-acceptance as to very nearly make the works polar opposites, which is hardly surprising--Austen wrote 200 years ago, when conformity and self-sacrifice were virtues, not vices as they are, for better and worse, today.
- Elizabeth Bennet is a 'modern' woman
Why? Because she refuses to marry an odious man simply for the comfort of financial security? Because she won't degrade herself by accepting Darcy's parsimonious and grudging first marriage proposal? Because she's intelligent and strong-willed? All of these qualities make Elizabeth a remarkable woman, but no more in Austen's era than she would be today. As far as her desires and dreams are concerned, Elizabeth is firmly and steadfastly a woman of her own time. She wants to marry a good, honorable man, hopefully for love, but at the very least out of mutual respect. Her refusal of the obsequious Mr. Collins is anything but modern--it is the only correct action, Austen tells us, for an intelligent woman when faced with the prospect of being ruled, her entire life, by a fool. Elizabeth is dismayed by her friend Charlotte's decision to accept Mr. Collins not because she has romantic notions of marrying for love, but because she has a clear-eyed image of what their marriage would be like.
Like many of Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice is a blueprint for making a good marriage. Elizabeth and her sister Jane are surrounded by examples of how not to choose a mate--Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, their own parents--and one or two examples, chiefly from the Gardiners, of what a good marriage should look like. In this, Austen is anything but modern--she is an arch-conservative. The notion that they might not marry, that they might be forced to make their way in life as governesses or as spinster sisters, dependent on the goodwill of their relatives, occurs to her characters only as a frightening fantasy, and to her readers almost never.
- Mr. Darcy is a reformed rake
I came across this one in an especially insipid article in the Guardian a few years ago, which trotted Darcy out as an example of how women like to fix men. Which is true, but not about Darcy. It's what makes Pride and Prejudice such a singular novel--for maybe the only time in the history of the romance, the guy fixes himself. Not that Darcy was ever a rake by an stretch of the imagination. Austen makes it clear that he's a pretty stand-up guy--honorable, generous, intelligent--even before Elizabeth gets to him. Like every single one of us, Darcy is flawed, but unlike most people, when that flaw is pointed out to him, he tries to make himself better. His actions in the book's second half are an attempt to show Elizabeth that he's taken her words to heart, even as she becomes aware of the many fine qualities she's missed in him. Her love is his reward for learning humility and overcoming his snobbishness, but apart from the first push, Darcy achieves that transformation all on his own.
- Elizabeth Bennet is a twit / Elizabeth Bennet is perfection incarnate
Like Darcy, Elizabeth is flawed--she allows her hurt feelings at his prideful manner to dictate her behavior towards him, refusing to consider that he might have good qualities as well as bad. She allows herself to lose sight of morality when she tacitly approves of Mr. Wickham's fortune-hunting behavior simply because he's flattered her with his attentions. And, like Darcy, Elizabeth is made aware of her faults and is deeply ashamed--"I had not known myself", she tells her sister. Although her actions in response to this revelation aren't as pro-active as Darcy's (Elizabeth's role as a woman in Austen's fiction is, after all, a passive one), she does try to make amends for her mistakes. It's her intelligence and her keen moral sense that allow Elizabeth to recognize her faults and change into a better person, and while she's hardly a paragon, there's no question that she is an admirable character.
UPDATE: Welcome, Bookslut readers! Feel free to poke around. Here are my thoughts on what we can expect from the new Keira Knightly P&P. If you're interested in my thoughts on other books, here are reviews of Angela Carter's Wise Children, Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, two novels by M. John Harrison, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and, on a more humorous note, a condensation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. On publishing issues, here are my thoughts on last year's Booker decision, and the magic of short books.