I love Twitter. It’s the only way I would find gems like this Fox News op-ed on the “Four Things Jane Austen Teaches Us About Love.”
Suzanne Venker, apparently the poor man’s Caitlin Flanagan, explains that women who are looking for Mr. Right can learn a lot from ol’ Jane Austen. She offers such helpful tips as “play hard to get” and “make your guy feel important” and “don’t make your own money.” All basically the same pablum you’d find in Cosmo, although she presents it as some incredible counter-cultural manifesto. My favorite part is this, however:
“Whenever I watch “Pride and Prejudice,” I think about modern day films, where men and women take off their clothes at the first introduction.”
Yep, watch. I’m reasonably sure this woman hasn’t read any Jane Austen, or perhaps only P&P. I can only hope that if she’d actually read the books she might realize that most of Jane Austen’s work is only peripherally about love.
Jane Austen’s books aren’t really about love. They’re about marriage, which in Jane Austen’s day was a life-or-death, bare-knuckle contact sport with pretty much nothing to do with love, at least in the way we understand it today. They’re about women trying to do their best to make the most of a world that is entirely rigged against them, and basically trying to end up with the guy who sucks the least. (Venker is also the author of something called “How to Choose a Husband and Make Peace with Marriage” so maybe she relates.)
Mrs. Bennet is played for comic relief (particularly in movie versions) but her desperation is real. The Bennets have five daughters and no sons, so if their father dies, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters get squat–unless they can be married off strategically and wealthily. A good marriage was the only thing that kept women, and their widowed mothers, from sinking into not only spinsterhood but poverty. Like, the “we live in a shack” kind of poverty. Modern ladies, are you taking notes?!
Women in Jane Austen’s era had to do these things–be accommodating and sweet and most of all virginal– because they had to find husbands. There was marriage or there was spinsterhood–which meant being financially dependent on your father and then whatever relative felt bad enough to take you in until you died. You got married or you became a ghost.
This marriage-market-as-blood-sport world is also why it is bullshit to dismiss Austen out of hand as “women’s fiction.” This is not a Katherine Heigl rom-com, this is “Game of Thrones” with more tea and marginally less incest.
Venker’s points about not having sex on the first date and not being overly aggressive (whatever that means) are kind of hilarious because even Betty Draper would find this woman sort of a drip; but they’re also plain old wrong. The only reason Austen’s heroines aren’t banging all over the misty moors is because their lives would be 100% over as soon as they rolled back into the village with their bonnets askew. In the society they live in, their entire worth as human beings lies in their marriageability. (And I mean, please. Marianne Dashwood? Catherine Morland? Give those girls diaphragms and paychecks and they would slut. it. up.) Austen’s heroines are women who know exactly how high the stakes are. The only thing that makes them heroines at all is that they are brave enough to take some risks in order to end up with the least repulsive suitor. Nostalgia for that era speaks to ignorance about the world in general, but Venker’s article –not to mention that telling verb “watch”– is a reminder that before you try to project fictional mores on the modern world, you might want to actually read the books in question.
Reading! It makes you less stupid.