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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Jane Austen’s Regency Era Handmaid’s Tale

My wife and I have it on our shortlist to binge-watch the Hulu miniseries of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at some point this summer. Of course, that is the highly acclaimed new film adaptation (starring Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel, among others) of Atwood’s prescient novel, as neatly encapsulized by Wikipedia:
“…a 1985 dystopian novel set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States government, the novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain individualism and independence.”

In light of events unfolding in the U.S., in which the prospect of a totalitarian theocracy, cynically imposed on America by a pack of “mad men” led by the maddest grabber of them all, is no longer merely the stuff of speculative fiction, Atwood’s cautionary tale harking back to once upon a dark time in Salem when women were murdered as “witches”, is all too timely.

In that context, yesterday, my eyes widened when I read the following Atwood tidbit in an article in the Guardian about various modern authors’s personal takes on Jane Austen’s fiction:  
Pride & Prejudice ‘set a bad example’ to the 12-year-old Margaret Atwood, she has scribbled, by exposing the young girl to ‘a hero who was unpleasant to the heroine, but later turned out to be not only admirable and devotedly in love with her, but royally rich…Were underage readers of this book, such as myself, doomed to a series of initially hopeful liaisons in which unpleasant men turned out to be simply unpleasant?’ “

My eye was caught immediately by Atwood’s skeptical take on P&P, because I’ve been aware since 2009 of Atwood’s likely interest in the subversive feminist aspects of Northanger Abbey. That idea first occurred to me after I read the following in “The Bluebeard Syndrome in Atwood's Lady Oracle: Fear and Femininity” (2005) by Shuli Barzilai:  
“When asked by Joyce Carol Oates in a 1978 interview about what inspired Lady Oracle, Atwood replied: ‘the central character is a writer of gothic romances partly because I've always wondered what it was about these books that appealed—do so many women think of themselves as menaced on all sides, and of their husbands as potential murderers? And what about that 'Mad Wife' left over from Jane Eyre? Are these our secret plots?’  "

I connected Atwood to Northanger Abbey because, in a nutshell, my 2010 presentation at the JASNA AGM was about Mrs. Tilney in NA as the ghostly symbol of English wives “murdered” by their husbands via pregnancy and childbirth. In my talk, I argued that Austen was, inter alia, drawing upon the same rich Gothic tradition of the Bluebeard archetype as Atwood did much later in Lady Oracle. I also wondered at the time whether Atwood had, whether consciously or not, been inspired by Austen’s earlier take on that same dark theme (and, by the way, this subject of the death-in-childbirth theme of NA is the identical subject matter which Helena Kelly “borrowed” from me, without even so much as a by-your-leave, in the best section of her new Austen book –you’re welcome, Ms. Kelly, if you’re reading this!:  
ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”

In any event, because I have long known about Atwood’s seeming responsiveness to Austen’s subversive Gothic anti-parody in NA, with its subtext of wives in dire peril from their husbands in “ordinary” English marriage, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn of the preteen Atwood’s acute insight into the darker side of Mr. Darcy, a topic which I’ve been writing about for nearly a decade in regard to what I call the “shadow story” of Pride & Prejudice.

The youthful Atwood’s suspicion of Austen’s seeming endorsement of wish fulfilment thinking for young single women vicariously thrilling to Elizabeth’s courtship jackpot, resonates very strongly with my claim that P&P is a double story: i.e., even though, in the overt story of P&P, the Darcy every Janeite knows does indeed, in Atwood’s words, luckily turn out to be ‘not only admirable and devotedly in love with her, but royally rich’; whereas in the shadow story of P&P, the other Darcy, the evil twin in the shadow story, turns out to be not simply unpleasant, but downright Machiavellian and dangerous!

How so? The shadow Darcy I’ve discovered hidden in the text of Austen’s most famous and popular novel is the kind of ‘royally rich’ powerful, entitled man who will not take ‘No!’ for an answer from a woman he desires; and so, when he exercises his “option” to claim Elizabeth as a wife as a matter of right, and Elizabeth politely tells him (basically) to sod off, he does not simply slink off in ignominy and lick his wounds. Instead, turning the famous first sentence of P&P topsy turvy, the shadow Darcy, who considers any single woman he selects to be in want of him as a husband, wastes no time in adopting the self-help remedy of making her want him—starting with his famous letter, which, viewed through the shadow story lens, is filled with clever lies from one end to the other!

I.e., the shadow Darcy out-Wickhams Wickham! He is a toxic narcissist who, contrary to his “confession” at the end of the novel, has not been ‘properly humbled’ at all, but merely pretends to be. When thwarted by Elizabeth’s courageous rejection of his first marriage proposal, what he does, in an abhorrently deceitful way, is to coldly and methodically stage-manage a series of experiences for her, all carefully designed so as to humble her. He destroys her resistance to the allure of his wealth and power, and eventually reduces her to a miserable state of craven gratitude and desperate yearning for him to propose again.

So the joke is on Elizabeth when she playfully “confesses” to Jane how she fell in love with Darcy: "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." As to which the shadow Darcy, if he could have heard her words, no doubt would have joked in private triumph to Colonel Fitzwilliam, like Prospero crowing to Ariel:  “It turns out exactly as I planned. Her resistance is no more.”

And speaking of female resistance to patriarchal power, that’s what came up for me when I read the young Margaret Atwood’s sharp intuitive take on P&P.  Jane Austen creates two extremes – the ultimate female fantasy fulfilled, and that same fantasy revealed to be the ultimate female paranoid nightmare—that latter being, in Atwoodian terms, a Regency Era handmaid’s tale, in which ordinary English marriage is actually a nightmare for the wife.

Henry Tilney unwittingly summarizes this nightmare thusly:
"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

What most Janeites still don’t understand, is that Jane Austen meant for her readers, especially the females, to recognize that Henry Tilney ought to have congratulated, rather than castigated, Catherine Morland, for her sharp intuition into how the “election” of spouses in the Regency Era was totally rigged against the interest of the female.

And so now I hope you see that quote written by the young Margaret Atwood is in this same insightful vein, and this kind of insight is surely what motivated her to write her iconic tales of subversive female resistance to marital subjugation. Both Austen and Atwood wished to provide female readers with useful guides so as to find realistic love attained via a pragmatic, clear-eyed, patient approach to the choice of a partner in love—but at all times to be vigilant to the persistence of state- and religious-based male oppression of women.

Although things have changed enough in the Western world for Atwood not to have to conceal her sharp feminist message in her fiction, it is high time we all recognized that Jane Austen was already on that same page two centuries ago, but could only tell her Regency Era handmaid’s tale in a whisper spoken from behind a veil.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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