Yesterday, on a strong personal recommendation, I went to see the new film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which Rotten Tomatoes describes as follows: “Any comic book character that sticks around for more than a few issues tends to build up a pretty interesting backstory, and Wonder Woman - one of the medium’s longest-lasting and most beloved heroes - certainly fits that description. But as this weekend’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women illustrates, the lasso-wielding defender of justice has a real-life history that’s every bit as interesting -- and occasionally just about as colorful -- as anything she’s gotten up to on the printed page. Starring Luke Evans as Wonder Woman creator William Marston, this biopic depicts the forward-thinking views that helped Marston mold the character - more importantly, details the many ways in which her development was strongly influenced by the polyamorous relationship between Marston, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). It’s the type of story that could have been given a luridly shallow treatment under different circumstances, but critics say writer/director Angela Robinson has assembled an appropriately thoughtful ode to the behind-the-scenes life of a wonderfully complicated superhero.”
After seeing Robinson’s film, I couldn’t agree more with that collective critical thumbs up. I found it both poignant and thought-provoking, not least because I had zero prior acquaintance with any aspect of the Wonder Woman (back)story beyond these facts: Wonder Woman was the first female comic superhero; Lynda Carter had played the role on TV decades ago; & there was the excellent 2017 action movie which has not only broken box office records, but also has been widely applauded for its powerful female role model, a superhero who uses her powers to bring peace to a male-dominated world of oppression and war. So, before I go further, I urge you to go see Robinson’s film!
What was of special interest to me as an Austen scholar in Robinson’s film was its dramatization of the covert feminist agenda behind the origin of Wonder Woman. That agenda was succinctly described by Prof. Ann Matsuuchi as follows back in 2012 in “Wonder Woman Wears Pants: Wonder Woman, Feminism and the 1972 'Women 's Lib' Issue ”:
“William Moulton Marston, Harvard psychologist and inventor of the first polygraph test, created the Wonder Woman character with a stated pedagogic intent. In a 1937 NY Times interview, Marston, with seemingly genuine optimism, predicted that ‘within 100 years the country will see the beginning of a sort of Amazonian matriarchy. Within 500 years a 'definite sex battle for supremacy' would occur, and after a millennium 'women would take over rule of the country, politically and economically.'’ In an attempt to avert the sort of moral censorship that led to the Hays Code in Hollywood, comic book publishers at the time sought institutional support from psychologists and educators, prominently listing their names as part of an editorial advisory board. Marston was hired as a psychological consultant and hoped to utilise this popular medium as an “emotional reeducator,” using images of gender reversal to inspire social change. His vision of a feminised utopia was distant: a 1943 cover of Wonder Woman issue #7 depicts an American presidential campaign 1000 years in the future, with Wonder Woman standing triumphantly over a crowd of supporters.”
As I watched the film, and read that scholarly summary, I couldn’t help but be struck by the remarkable coincidence that just over a month ago, I gave a talk at the 2017 JASNA Annual General Meeting, entitled “ ‘Galigai for ever and ever’, St. Swithin, & Diana Parker: the power of the strong mind over the weak, & the dying Jane Austen’s ambition for immortality & gender justice". In that talk, I made my most comprehensive public argument to date in support of my longstanding claim that Jane Austen was a pioneer in creating female characters who, when properly “decoded”, were Regency Era “wonder women”, with “superpowers”, i.e., strong minds, which they used to subvert and counteract patriarchal oppression, and in particular to subtly advocate for gender fluidity, freedom, and equality.
With that brief introduction, then, I will in the remainder of this post present excerpts from my AGM talk, which focus on Lady Susan, the character whom I believe was Jane Austen’s first, fully developed “wonder woman”, a powerful, defiant, charismatic female arch-nemesis of patriarchal oppression. It should be obvious as you read along why the Marston film resonates so strongly with my beliefs about Jane Austen’s heroic, feminist, pedagogical agenda:
RELEVANT EXCERPTS FROM MY OCTOBER 6, 2017 JASNA AGM TALK: During 15+ years of research, I’ve come to see Jane Austen as an ambitious author who joked about writing for the money, but whose deepest motive for seeking fame was noble. She dreamt of exerting widespread, lasting, benign influence on her female readers. She was determined that her words would survive her mortal body, to vindicate and promote the power of women, by strengthening their minds by reading her radically new type of novel. My talk today springs from a clue to the motivation of that ambitious, radical feminist Jane, not in her published novels, but, when mortality loomed large, in her lesser known 1817 writings, in which she three separate times asserted her strong powers of mind:
FIRST, in a comment in her letter written 2 months before her death, to old friend and former Godmersham governess Anne Sharp: “But how you are worried! Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort. Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice! It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed. Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.-Adeiu.”
SECOND, in her last fiction, the Sanditon fragment, in words spoken by the “officious” DIANA Parker:
“The world is pretty much divided between the weak of mind and the strong; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them”;
THIRD, in what truly are her last words, the final stanza of her deathbed testament, the “fanciful” poem “When Winchester Races”:
“When once we are buried you think we are gone But behold me immortal!...Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.… Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers…”.
I perceive a maternal presence hovering over these expressions of the power of the strong mind over the weak, and the duty to be useful in exercise of that power. That ghost is the author who preceded Austen in publication, in protofeminism, and in death --Mary Wollstonecraft, who throughout Austen’s career, I will argue, seemed to call to her successor to remember her advocacy for the power of the strong female mind. I believe Wollstonecraft electrified the teenaged Jane Austen in late 1791 with her revolutionary Vindication.
Then I believe Mary’s death in childbirth in late 1797, and the ensuing misogynist attack on her legacy, further radicalized the 22 year old Jane. At the 2010 JASNA AGM, I argued that the late Mrs. Tilney was the symbol of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the other victims of that uniquely female childbed epidemic. I also believe Wollstonecraft’s tragic death inspired Austen to pick up the pen dropped by her fallen idol, and to further the cause of strengthening female minds, and to strive for gender justice.
….When she was dying and knew she’d never see Ann Sharp again, with her “Galigai for ever and ever. Adeiu” Jane Austen was bidding her very dear friend a sad farewell, and using a lesbian rallying cry to do so. This is the only letter Austen wrote to Anne Sharp that has survived –preserved, perhaps, because, along with her precious first edition of Emma, it was all Anne had left of Jane, just like Ennis’s bloodstained shirt kept for years by Jack, as we see in the poignant final scene of Brokeback Mountain.
That brings me to the second 1817 Austen passage, in the Sanditon fragment, in which Diana Parker (perhaps named for the chaste huntress goddess who wasn’t into men?) refers to her own and her sister’s strong minds, which I’ll repeat:
“…my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of strength of mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us or incline us to excuse ourselves. THE WORLD IS PRETTY MUCH DIVIDED BETWEEN THE WEAK OF MIND AND THE STRONG; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them”. …etc etc
The echoing of Diana Parker’s words by her brother Sidney, and also in yet another 1817 letter written by Jane Austen to brother Charles, shows how much of herself Austen was pouring into her latest parodic fictional alter ego, Diana Parker. Diana’s hypochondria reflects the essence of the tragedy of Jane, a genius of strong mind trapped in a prematurely dying body, but still ambitious to keep being useful by writing till her pen dropped.
And all of the above also fits with her final written words, dictated to her sister in her final days of life—the last stanza of the poem “When Winchester Races”, which I quoted before. I’ve long argued that St. Swithin is Jane Austen in her ironic, defiant thumbing of her nose at Death and at anyone who thought her fiction would die with her. Even as her weak body surrendered, her still strong mind hurled its final defiance: “When once we are buried, you think we are gone. But behold me immortal!”
Jane Austen the author and would-be teacher knew that she, like Wollstonecraft, was dying before she could completely fulfill her mission; yet her “darling children”, the six completed novels, would survive and become immortal. And even if she never dreamt that in 2017, she’d triumph not merely in book sales, translations, and adaptations, she did aspire to the triumph of the “powers” of her strong mind, and hope that the dangerous secret of her “deviant” sexual orientation, would one day become fully manifest. And now I’m ready to show you the best examples of how “the influence of the strong mind” played out in Austen’s fiction, beginning with her novella which strangely mirrored Edgeworth’s Leonora, Lady Susan.
A year ago I blogged about resolving the apparent contradictions of Austen’s Lady Susan after seeing Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s brilliant film adaptation. Many were puzzled by the seeming irreconcilable contradiction between its subversive anti-romantic heroine and the sophisticated positive romance in Austen’s six novels. Why did Austen decided to create an unapologetic female rake, who revels in her effortless ability to manipulate men, and even make her a boastful protagonist, a female Richard III? And how and why did she make Lady Susan so irresistibly witty, daring, and entertaining, that many of us actually fall under her spell, and somehow forget to recoil in disgust at her machinations? For those of you who’ve only seen the movie and haven’t read the book, rest assured that pretty much all those zingers that Beckinsale delivers so perfectly were Austen’s own. Stillman’s film isn’t anachronistic, it doesn’t impose a modern feminist sensibility on a late 18th century woman, it’s faithful to the sociopathic brilliance of JA’s own heroine.
I think that part of what makes many readers (and viewers), like myself, forget to feel too much sympathy for the victims of Lady Susan's guile --- especially her principal male target, Reginald de Courcy--- is that Lady Susan manages to turn what was ordinarily a kind of death sentence for middle-aged women in that era --becoming a widow without money--into opportunity---like a female Nemesis spawned by and sicced on Austen’s male-dominated world, as poetic justice for the universally ignored abuse and oppression of women, both married and single.
In Northanger Abbey, an appalled Henry Tilney castigates Catherine Tilney for imagining his father the Bluebeard-like murderer of his mother, as if all the “worthy” powers that be of English society would turn a blind eye to such horrors – but Austen’s bitingly ironic joke is actually on Henry and the unsuspicious reader, because, as the narrator drily notes at the end of the novel, Catherine was correct in essentials, if not details, about the horrible English every-husband, General Tilney. Lady Susan would’ve known exactly how to handle General Tilney, rest assured!
And I also see Austen’s seeming indulgence of her female rake as echoed by her much later refusal to judge a transgressive, real life female, in Austen’s candid comments about Princess Caroline to Austen’s most trusted confidant, Martha Lloyd, in her January 1812 letter:
"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband….if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"
Jane Austen might just as well have said “if I must give up Lady Susan, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the patriarchal social system had not been totally rigged against women, and she could have attained personal fulfilment in an ethical way". Indeed, “the influence of strength over weakness indeed” could have been Lady Susan’s motto!
I see it in what Lady Susan writes to his bosom buddy Alicia Johnson about Reginald:
“He is lively & seems clever, & when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister's kind offices have implanted, he may be an . There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority. I have disconcerted him already by my calm reserve; & it shall be my endeavour to humble the of these self- important still lower, to convince Mrs. Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, & to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, &prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from & all whom I love. . Yours S. Vernon.”
And she is later unwittingly echoed by her unwitting boy toy Reginald in his bitter reproach to her:
“…From what have I not escaped! I have only to be grateful. Far from me be all complaint, every sigh of regret. My own folly had endangered me, my preservation I owe to the kindness, the integrity of another; …After such a discovery as this, you will scarcely affect further wonder at my meaning in bidding you adieu. My understanding is at length restored, and teaches no less to abhor the artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded.”
Googling about Lady Susan as a Wollstonecraftian symbol of a strong minded woman, I found a brilliant June 2016 article entitled “Jane Austen Vindicates the Rights of Women” by Sarah Skwire, which adds these insights: “Lady Susan is a wrecking ball in petticoats…Austen’s and WSC’s works…taken together…provide a persuasive argument --philosophical and artistic-- for the importance of women’s liberty and for the crippling effects of denying that liberty.”
But, as I suggested at the start, my research has gradually shown me Wollstonecraft’s pervasive influence on all of Austen’s writings, not just Lady Susan. The published work of a dozen renowned Austen scholars, from the late Allison Sulloway in 1976, to Margaret Kirkham, Claudia Johnson, and Jocelyn Harris, provide many pieces of the puzzle, to which I’ve added my own findings. I assert that Austen took Wollstonecraft in an extraordinary new direction, using fiction to dramatize the power of strong female minds who use what Wollstonecraft dismissed as mere cunning….”
END QUOTE FROM MY AGM TALK
In the not too distant future, I will present the remainder of my AGM talk in this blog, in which I made the case for several other, previously unrecognized "wonder women" in Austen's novels. Until then, I leave you with my playful speculation that if Marston and his two real life wonder women were alive today and could read my interpretations of Austen’s “wonder women”, they would surely exclaim, in unison, “Great Jane, give me strength!”
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