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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, May 10, 2010

Can Jane Austen forgive Marianne?

The following is my latest response in an interesting thread in Austen-L which arose out of discussion of the following passage in Sense and Sensibility describing, of course, Marianne and Willoughby:

"Why they should not openly acknowledge to her mother and herself, what their constant behavior to each other declared to have taken place, Elinor could not imagine"

Ellen speculated as to whether this passage suggests that the "what" is that Marianne has had sex with Willoughby, and not merely an engagement between them. The discussion then turned to speculation about Jane Austen's moral judgments vis a vis Marianne's behavior.

Diana: "Of course [Jane Austen] is not a mouthpiece of the ugliness of which you speak; she clearly condemns people who think and act like Maria or Lydia. And although not a reformer, there are covert moments (like the one where she judges Henry Crawford and wishes society did not penalize women) where she makes her opinions evident."

You are pointing in the right direction, Diana, but, in my opinion, you only go part of the way. I think JA's very ambitious, but also very covert, goal was to depict a dreadful social structure which was grotesquely unfair to, and dangerous for, women. And so while JA would have little use for the Marias or Lydias of her world, she would have saved her strongest anger and her most scathing satire for the powerful men who created and maintained that structure, almost entirely for their own benefit, enforcing it especially harshly against those women who transgressed, who sought to cheat a rigged house, and to emulate the men who routinely cheated and behaved abominably and got away with it.

Who exactly is the victim of Maria's "crime"? Sure, Mr. Rushworth, who is a stupid man, has felt the sting of a marriage in which his wife has had utterly no regard for his feelings, and married him solely for the opulence of the life she could lead as his wife. But you know how his story goes in the aftermath of MP:

"Mr Rushworth had no difficulty in procuring a divorce; and so ended a marriage contracted under such circumstances as to make any better end the effect of good luck not to be reckoned on."

What happened to him, surely, was what happened to Harris Bigg-Wither after JA revoked her acceptance of HIS proposal, i.e., he married another woman--this time one who had been vetted to make sure she was compliant and submissive--made her pregnant at least ten times, lived a long life himself, and died a rich rich man. He is a perfect example of the distinction I am making, because I am certain that JA would have found Maria's adultery worthy, at most, of some wicked gossip, whereas JA HATED the childbirth-tyranny of everyday English marriage.

JA understood the difference between that sort of outcome, and the terrible fate which befell the elder Eliza Williams in S&S.

I mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest last month, and I think it's a good touchstone for JA's covert agenda as a writer. On the surface, she seemed to be an unequivocal supporter of the passive strategies for adaptation to a system of total male privilege, which are exemplified by Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. But under the surface, I will show that where her deepest sympathies lay was with the female rebels, those who did not accept the status quo, but who, either overtly or covertly, fought back, and especially, who followed Lizzy's advice to Caroline Bingley, for how to punish a man who asserted unfair power over women:

"Teaze him -- laugh at him."

And I believe John is, in a different way, saying something in the ballpark of what I am saying, when he writes:

John: "Whatever Marianne has done -- and not just in the trip to Allenham -- she feels confident that she has behaved not only morally but with propriety. She believes that those who might think her behavior violates propriety do not understand what "real impropriety" is. When Marianne writes to Willoughby in vol II, ch 6, asking if he has been deceived in her, she is wondering whether others might have lied about her; she says, "I shall be satisfied, in being able to satisfy you."
That is, she is confident that her own behavior has been moral and proper."

I agree. Marianne, and by extension, JA herself, I argue, does not believe that a single woman claiming the power that single men of her world routinely claimed, i.e., to have consensual sex prior to marriage, is behaving improperly, in a deeper moral sense, the one that starts not from convention or dogma, but from the Golden Rule, i.e., asking who is actually harmed by a given behavior, and asking how severe that harm to others really is.

Marianne, in the shadow story of the novel, chose to have sex with a person, Willoughby, for whom true affection WAS felt, and who had NOT been trapped or pressured into behavior he did not want to engage in, and who she was NOT planning to jilt as soon as they had sex--I do not believe JA would have thought Marianne was behaving in an "ugly" way--she would merely have said to Marianne--be much smarter, be much more careful with your body, for your OWN sake, you are entering a minefield.

And I do not need to rely solely on shadows and subtext to make the above argument. As Diana implies, look at what JA wrote in an UNRESERVED way to the almost-another-sister with whom she did not have to pull punches in private, i.e., Martha Lloyd, about the Prince Regent and Princess Caroline. It conclusively demonstrates that JA was capable of a subtle, hierarchical moral calculus, recognizing that the deeper evil in male-female relationships often sprang from the actions of men given too much power over women, and that women had in a way been driven crazy by having to live in such an unfair world:

“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 -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself `attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but 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."

What was really ugly to JA was behavior which was cruel to others, which was selfish while pretending to be kind (i.e., hypocritical), which was exploitative in an unacknowledged way, and which REALLY injured other people--e.g., John and Fanny Dashwood reducing the Dashwood women's inheritance to nothing; Mrs. Ferrars cutting Edward off without a dime as punishment for wishing to marry a portionless girl; Willoughby abandoning a pregnant single girl, etc. On the moral scale, these crimes were a hundred times more severe than sexual promiscuity with men who had in NO way been tricked into it.

And we can use, as a measuring stick, our world today. Marianne's behavior, today, would not even be noticed, it would be considered normal, it is at worst a victimless "crime" against propriety. Whereas today, the really ugly behavior I have described above is still every bit as ugly as it was 200 years ago. It is a timeless ugliness, the one that really matters. And JA recognized the difference.

Diana: "That's interesting. Can you be more specific? I'm not sure I've seen a writer arguing in favor of Lydia's materialism anywhere; who does that?"

When a system is deeply corrupt, and destructive of personal autonomy, any revolt against that system, even if on a personal level it is stupid or reckless or selfish or crass, can still, on a deeper level, have the redeeming value that at least one slave has revolted against the tyranny which the other slaves meekly accept and bow down to. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

"Mrs. Elton does not talk to Miss Fairfax as she speaks of her. We all know the difference between the pronouns he or she and thou, the plainest-spoken amongst us; we all feel the influence of a something beyond common civility in our personal intercourse with each other -- a something more early implanted. We cannot give any body the disagreeable hints that we may have been very full of the hour before. We feel things differently."

Diana: "In other words, you can simultaneously hold an earnest wish that the world was more fairly organized for women, and still comment snidely on an individual woman's manners or morals. That's just human, which we have to acknowledge that Jane Austen was."

And that just happens to be a passage which I quoted in my address to JASNA-NYC, not for the surface meaning you so aptly summarize, but for the subliminal meanings which saturate those few sentences, i.e., this is a thinly veiled allusion to Jane Fairfax's concealed pregnancy. In that subliminal sense, this passage covertly speaks to ANOTHER way in which JA's world was unfairly organized against the interests of women, when women's transgressive sexual behavior has been subjected to a harsh and unforgiving moral judgment, by giving such women choices between abortion, prostitution, or, at best, governessing.

How utterly brilliant of JA to speak on two levels about the same subject, unfairness to women. Few passages more beautifully exemplify that brilliance of dual construction.

Cheers, ARNIE

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