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I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Thank You, Jane Austen

When I was in Portland I visited a cousin who's in his early forties and whom his mother has tried (unsuccessfully) to marry off for many years. He is a solitary man, finicky and withdrawn; for a while he was a Christian so committed to the faith that he occasionally slipped into fanaticism. I didn't look forward to seeing him, but I went for my father's sake; my father is a great believer in family loyalty. To my surprise, my cousin and I had a long stimulating conversation. I found out that he's interested in Tibet and Buddhism, that he doesn't think church is the only place where you can worship God, and also that he would like to start a family some day. "But it's hard," he said, "to find someone who will give you your space, you know?" All the couples he knew at his church were controlled by the women, he added; the men were under the tyranny of their wives.

I was flabbergasted. All my education and my experience has trained me to be watchful about women being controlled by men, never the other way around. So it never occurred to me that men had concerns about their own independence and freedom. What about the patriarchy? What about the political and social and sexual oppression of women for hundreds of years? Of course the first thing I asked Husband when I got home was if he thought my cousin had a point or was simply paranoid. Husband said, looking at me as if I was asking a silly question, "Well, think of the novels of Jane Austen." I could hardly believe my ears. I laughed with glee and a not altogether wholesome sense of victory. So Jane is among us, I thought. Whenever yee shall gather in my name.... "In Jane Austen's novels women are always in charge," Husband said. "Even if it appears otherwise, the women are the ones who pull the strings from behind the scenes." A lightbulb went off in my head then. You can think of the oppression of women as motivated, at bottom, by fear, and of patriarchy as a defense tactic.

It's hard to believe sometimes that my everyday life offers me such delicious, perfect segues, but it just so happens that only last week I finished reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler for my July book club meeting. The book is quite good and improves on second reading; it's more whimsical, thought-provoking and funny. I will allow myself only one rant about the discussion at the book club meeting, and it is this: I think I will become physically violent if I ever again hear someone say, with a grimace of disgust and disappointment on her face, "Oh, this book was all right but not very uplifting." I'm going to hate the word uplifting for the rest of my life. It seems that the average reader cannot tolerate characters who do not pull themselves up by their bootstraps by the end of the story; they cannot intellectually digest quirkiness, complex motivations, inner contradictions. One woman in the book club complained that all Jane Austen characters are obsessed with money and she doesn't see the point of that. Another woman said acridly that she felt sorry for the women in Jane Austen's books because they had nothing to do all day, and sorry for the men because they were so terrified that they might have to work for a living that they had to resort to marry rich. Deep breaths, I told myself. I'm not coming back here, I told myself. But I will, just for one more discussion. I don't know if it is out of loyalty that I'm doing it, or out of masochism.

5 Comments:

Blogger Michelle Fry said...

Your trip to Portland and your visit with your cousin both sound interesting. I can see where you cousin was coming from. Sometimes people in relationships are too cling with the other person whether they are male or female doesn't matter. I have always had a hard time finding someone who was able to give me enough space and able to make the time we do share together be quality time with true intimacy. It's a fine balancing act for sure.

I have never cared for Jane Austen because she is too descriptive her books are interesting social commentaries.

July 09, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I appreciate your point of view. My cousin, like you, is a runner; he told me that he needs to run one hour every day or else he cannot function physically and mentally. He hasn't met any women who are willing to give him that space -- or much of any other kind of space. I understand very much the need to be alone, and I feel in my own life how healing (for lack of a better word) solitude can be. Jane Austen's novels intrigue me in part because of the way they deal with the individual as part of the group, with issues of privacy (gossip is a force of nature in Jane Austen), with the ways in which men and women succeed or fail as social animals.

July 10, 2006  
Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

Jane Austen, overdescriptive? Do you feel suffocated by detail? Do you feel that the niceties of the constraints she puts upon her characters hem you in a little too closely? Can you be any more precise in your diagnosis?

I am sure that someone has dreamt of having the great authors in workshop. She could say to Charles Dickens, "Your work is plot-bound; your characters are too schematic; you rely on fantastic coincidence." She could say to Henry James, "You've got to do something about these runaway sentences. Try splitting them up into little sentences, one thought at a time." And, she could say to Jane Austen, "Your work is overdescriptive. Try to cut down on the detail and focus more on the arc of the story."

The only people who might agree with you are screenwriters, who are allowed to let directors and actors and costumers and musicians fill in the details that they so relentlessly cut out in an effort to get to the plot.

July 13, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thank you for your defense of Jane Austen. I am afraid I do not stand up often enough for the authors I love.

July 15, 2006  
Blogger JIC said...

What a very interesting blog post. I like the way you described your cousin's spiritual journey.

On the matter of Jane Austen, I am a huge fan of her work, and I'm not able to agree with your Husband's view that the women in Austen's novels were in control. I think they were able to exercise social influence, but in so many other matters they were quite powerless. For example, the whole issue of primogeniture and the entailing of estates required women to marry for their own economic security. Austen portrayed her stance against arranged marriage through her characters like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.

Thank you for an interesting read and another point of view.

July 23, 2006  

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