April 13th, 2008

reading, activism, writing

Book # 13: Emma, by Jane Austen

What can be added to the volumes of criticism and analysis of Jane Austen's novels? Emma was just the distracting bite of pleasure I hoped it would be. The story, known by Austen readers and viewers of the movie Clueless, explores the assumptions about love that can drive the most sane person to acts of desperation.

Emma presumes that she is the best judge of character in her small, but socially ordered world. That she has her likes and dislikes is part of the delight of the book. That she is so often mistaken, seeing love where it doesn't exist, possibilities where there are none, and not seeing a suitor for what he is, makes the book an delightful classic.

Published in 1816, it is a creation that is completely of its time. Then class divisions were the subject of constant discussion. Was he marrying beneath him? Was she suitable or perhaps the bastard daughter of a gentleman? Was there anyone at a high enough station for her?

In addition to an extreme rigidity in class differences, the subject of women's powerlessness is clearly on display. For the most part, British woman of that era had none of the problems that populate this book. Unlike Charles Dickens, whose stories revolve around the urban poor, Austen sets her tales in the upper and middle gentry with homes in the country and business in London.

Still for women of this upper class, fear of being left with no decent income (or worse) drives the amusing obsession with marrying up. With few respectable jobs available and social ruin for stepping outside the boundaries, women had few options. The pressure of the patriarchal system played itself out a million different ways in women's lives.

How far have we come? Plenty far. However sexism is as common as the air we breathe. It flourishes in the images we see in advertising, the types of clothing available to buy, the anti-women anti-choice battle to roll back reproductive rights, and the high politics of presidential campaigns.

Austen would find much to commend in the progress women have made. But I suspect that both she and I would miss the types of machinations that she so skillfully describes in the art of creating a suitable couple circa 1800.