Jane Austen (was: A whole lot of Re: that I snipped off)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Fri Jun 8 00:33:29 EDT 2001


On Wed, 6 Jun 2001 17:48:43 +0100, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:

>Melissa:
>
>>Hallie and Ven, duking it out in fine style:
>
>Oh bug- Dam - Oh dear!  Is that what we're doing?  I am now bound to 
>have the bush goddess appearing in my dreams telling me to be more 
>ladylike!

Nah, it's very ladylike duking.  :)

>[Mary in _Persuasion_]
>
>>She's the younger sister who made good in
>>her marriage, but deep down still feels inadequate as a person.  Notice how
>>hard she tries to get people to recognize her status, as though she doesn't
>>have any internal reserves of self-worth and needs the affirmation to be
>>real.  I feel sorry for her because it seems like such a waste of a
>>basically nice person, someone who would be admirable if she wasn't so
>>desperate.
>
>See, I find this puzzling.  I mean, of course you're right, I 
>probably *should* feel sorry for her (just as I do feel sorry for Ivy 
>and Seb).  But criticism of snobbery is such a recurrent theme in JA 
>- actually, off the top of my head, I think it's in every one of the 
>novels, though obviously more strongly in some.  Thinking about the 
>society JA was talking about, I'm not sure this type of snobbery 
>would necessarily have been based on feelings of inadequacy.  Or why 
>do you single out Mary's pushing her superior status as indicating 
>feelings of inadequacy, versus Elizabeth and their father, Lady 
>Catherine De B, Darcy (pre-reformation!), the Bingley sisters, Mrs. 
>Ferris (?  it's been a while, Edward's mother in S&S) etc. etc? 

Mainly because _Persuasion_ is the one we've been talking about.  But once
again you've prompted me to more deeply think about my responses....

I'm at a disadvantage, as usual, because I haven't read any of these books
in a while and I do not have Ven's prodigious memory.  Looks like it's time
to break them out again, huh?  So keep in mind that I may be misremembering
some of the things I'm basing my ideas on.

In thinking about Mary what's-her-married-name, I also started remembering
how I feel more sorry for Caroline Bingley every time I read _Pride and
Prejudice_.  She is SO pathetic.  Yes, she's a snob.  But she is so
desperate to land Darcy--look at all the stupid things she does.  Not only
does she hurt her own cause, but she helps push Darcy *closer* to Elizabeth.
I was also thinking about how awful Emma is at times, and how Marianne
Dashwood is a terrible elitist about literature and art, and why these two
should be any more sympathetic than Mary or Caroline.

But what you've said above makes me think I was oversimplifying, because I
had decided that the difference is that the sympathetic characters are
humble enough to accept chastening.  This might be true, but it doesn't
explain why Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine are equally unsympathetic but for
totally different reasons.  I think that what looks like a uniform disdain
of snobbery and arrogance is actually several things, all of which Austen
appears to be criticizing in different ways.  I think I came up with three:

1.  Haughtiness of station.  These are the upper-class horribles who have
either titles or money and think they are therefore better than everyone
else.  Lady Catherine; Fanny (Mrs. John) Dashwood; Mrs. Ferrars (took me a
minute to come up with that name).  Probably others, but those are the ones
I can think of offhand.  They're so blinded by their arrogance that they've
created their own idea of what the world is like, and can't accept anything
that would contradict their perceptions.

2.  Arrogance that covers insecurity.  These characters are just as snobbish
as the first set, but for whatever reason, they have some small inkling that
the world doesn't always follow their whims.  Caroline Bingley, for example,
believes she's better than Elizabeth, but she's also perceptive enough to
know when her nasty innuendo goes awry.  Mary uses the unwritten laws of her
social circle to bolster her awareness that she's NOT well respected (didn't
she marry beneath herself in some way?  Or is that another character?).

3.  Conceited fools.  These are the ones who are too stupid to know how
stupid they are.  Mr. Collins, Lydia and Kitty Bennet, Robert Ferrars, Lucy
what's-her-name's older sister, the one who loves to be teased about the
Doctor.  Austen is obviously making fun of them, and obviously thinks they
are idiots, but reserves her ire for other, more dangerous characters.

There's also the humorous fools--the ones who are foolish but harmless and
even kind, such as the woman who takes the Dashwood sisters to London and
her daughter Charlotte.  (I can't remember names at all, and I'm too lazy to
go upstairs to get the books.)  But I think Austen, while still poking fun
at them, is doing it gently.

Anyway, the point is that while criticism of snobbery is a constant theme,
it's not always directed at the same kind of target.  Austen doesn't just
create one-dimensional characters who represent Arrogance and are easily
shot down.  She writes of real people who have understandable reasons for
being snobbish--and then she points out that, justification or not, it's
still not a good character trait.

I don't think we're meant to see Mary as a heroine.  I think we're intended
to see her many flaws, her convenient illnesses, her inconsistent maternal
love, and decide that she is not a role model to follow.  But the point is
that she's not arrogant because it's just the way she is.  She's arrogant
because she has no real human center and she's not very intelligent and
she's vain and insecure.  THESE THINGS ARE NOT PERMANENT.  Austen could very
well have had Mary outgrow these things.  So I think the theme is not
"arrogance is wrong."  I think it's "arrogance is wrong because there's
never a valid reason for it."  In every case where Austen has a conceited,
class-conscious snob, she digs into the heart of why that person is
conceited and reveals it as a sham.

It's this well-roundedness that allows me to feel sorry for Mary while still
not feeling terribly sympathetic.  I'm sorry for her because I can see how
she might have been different--kind of the way I can imagine how Kitty and
Lydia might have been different had their parents been more strict with
them.  But I don't exactly think of Mary as the ill-used heroine, because I
also recognize that it's mostly her own fault that she is the way she is.
Even assuming that she's genuinely ill, she seems pretty whiny about it.
(But all it takes to change this perception is to not accept Anne's
perception of events.)

>>Hallie says (and, BTW, you should be remembering _Beauty_ right now :)
>
>Unkind!  Melissa, how could you?  (or don't you realise that I am 
>haunted day and night by this memory?) :)

Oh, that sounded meaner than I meant it!  I'm so sorry!  All I intended to
suggest was that what Ven is doing with _Persuasion_ is like reading
_Beauty_ with the Beast as a passive-aggressive predator.  NOT anything smug
or mean-spirited....

Is there ANY way we can bring this back to DWJ?  I didn't think so.  :)

Melissa Proffitt
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