The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. March 12, 2001
References: 12/17/00, 1/5/01, 1/5/01R
For you to understand CTHD as seen through my eyes, I will let you in on the state of my mind as I went into the theater. I could just say I liked it and shut up, but I come from a line of long winded Granddaddies so here is the long version.
I have recently experienced two epiphanies in my life stemming from a life long struggle to understand the proper conduct for men and women in relationships. This lack of knowledge caused much grief in my life, which is the main reason I was drawn to JA and her study of human nature.
First, some background. As a woman I personally struggled with overcoming my Southern heritage, namely, the submissive wife syndrome, and prejudices for other races [plural - and you thought Archie Bunker was bad and he was a "Yankee" to boot!] On top of that was the struggle with the inequality in the workplace. Being brought up in the middle class South of the 1940s and 1950s meant a sheltered life and limited experiences with the people of my own sphere. Well rounded I was not. Knowledge of the rest of the world came from the movies and books. [I shudder to think what the rest of the world thinks of us from seeing our movies!]
In addition to the above, through the years I witnessed the rise and struggles of the feminist movement. Yet somehow it did not quite sit right with me and I couldn't put my finger on why. Then those books like "Men are from Mars ..." came along using the words 'respect', 'consideration', and 'appreciation'. The answer seem to boil down to "common courtesy" for everyone - period.
This brings me to my first epiphany. It all started with my renewed interest in our Dear Jane two years ago, mainly because I noticed her study of human nature and proper conduct. My attention really perked up as we (at Male Voices) took notice of the passionate passages first and then her influences. It all came together about two months ago when the Meister pointed out Cathy Decker's site where I found her eye-opening article "Female Self-Treatment: Preventive Medical Regimes, Piety, and the Novels of Frances Burney, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Elizabeth Helme." For me it was earthshaking! It seems that this struggle has been going on for centuries and we were not told; at least it was not shouted from the rooftops! Cathy's article held the keys to the answer I was looking for. But that's another story.
The second epiphany occurred just last week when I heard a speaker talking about marriage according to the Bible. He explained that we had been taught God at the top with man submitting to Him, then the wife submitting to her husband - an inline hierarchy. His understanding of the relationship was in the form of a triangle. God at the top with the husband and wife side by side below Him. They both had the ability to hear Him for themselves with the two of them acting as a double witness as to what they "heard" from Him. In God's sight they are spiritually equal, but with different roles according to their human nature - the strengths and weaknesses of each complimenting the other. I had never heard it explained that way. It made sense to me - and it is quite all right with me if you don't see it that way.
Notice the "timing" underlined above to let you understand what was on my mind when CTHD came into the picture. So, due to, or in spite of, the recommendations, I went to see CTHD a few days ago "to see for myself." [Stop moaning - I heard you say, "Oh God, there's more?"]
The foregoing describes the "eyes" which walked into the theater - even though I had a few prejudices to overcome. Having never known any Chinese personally, I thought they all looked alike. I wasn't too sure if they had any feelings either; in the movies (my very limited experience with Chinese people) they were portrayed as stiff and enigmatic in minor roles, with a few exceptions. Because of these prejudices I wasn't expecting to like it at all, but they were swept away as the movie progressed.
I expected the subtitles to present a problem, but they didn't. I had never seen a Chinese film or, for that matter, a martial arts type either. The kung fu stuff was fresh to my eyes, so I had nothing better or worse to compare it with. The "flying" was implausible, but so beautifully done I could almost believe it. [No, I don't want to buy that bridge in Brooklyn!]
As it turned out, I really enjoyed it much to my surprise. The actors were very good - very natural and believable as human beings. The two love stories reminded me of our Dear Jane with a similar capacity for feeling passion - subtle and not "in your face" [which means it was not that graphic].
The "feminist" struggle was also depicted which I did not expect. There
was familial duty versus the "heart" - shades of JA. An astounding point
for me occurred when the main older guy (please don't ask me to get their name
sorted out!) told the younger heroine to "be true to yourself". I have
heard that all life, and suddenly I understood its meaning due to the context of
the story - the young girl's struggle between familial duty and her heart.
The meaning of those words "be true to yourself" meant to me:
- do your own thing,
- never mind what other people think,
- don't let other people dominate you,
- and don't let other people tell you who you have to be.
As in: My relatives' definition of woman's role in life was summed up in their constant question to me as a young single woman: "When are you getting married?" That question defined "who I was" to them - I was somebody's wife, period.
Maybe you can understand by now why I left the theater with damp eyes and the sniffles. The main reason I condescended to even see it was because Bruce said it was "stunningly beautiful in places." He also said it was dumb but having seen it, I will interpret "dumb" as a word men use to refer to the mushy romantic parts - correct me if I am wrong. Not having ever seen one of this genre, everything was new to me so I didn't get bored. And y'all thought it was just "another movie"! Dave, if you haven't already, please take Jonesy to see it. I liked it so well that I recommended it to my daughters and if their "picky" Mama liked it, it must be good!
The movie is also pertinent to my present study of what JA and her contemporaries had to say about several subjects, mainly, relationships. Because of my research I found the March surprise link very fascinating. Technology as developed by Eric would be helpful in searching novels for certain words - (we already have Jane's novels on line with search capabilities). However, I can do without the "the's" etc. Thanks to Ash and Jonesy for keeping us up on the latest.
Oh, Good Lord have mercy! I just remembered Bruce's comment on Eric Johnson. Within his post is the statement "If someone had analyzed Austen's novels as Johnson does, and posted the results on Male Voices I would applaud. But Johnson doesn't see his efforts as mere trivial, obsessive pursuits." Bruce, are you implying that the postings at MV are merely trivial and obsessive? Goodness, please say it isn't so! My heart is broken! Oh Lord, should someone inform the Meister. He has been writing some awfully serious stuff lately! It might be best just to leave the poor deluded soul in the dark! :-/ Should I find a more "serious" place to post my rantings? On the other hand, maybe that's what my writing amounts to anyway. "Oh, bother!" said Pooh.
On a trivial, obsessive note I leave you with "Happy Trails!"
Ang Lee was the director of Emma Thompson's version (perversion?) of Sense and Sensibility.
Do you know much about Fanny Burney? Her dad was a famous London musician and, after she published her first novel, she became a great favorite of Samuel Johnson - was included in his coterie. She married a Frenchman and was in France when Napoleon escaped from Elba. All persons of English origin were then considered to be under house arrest until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. She underwent a mastectomy in France without benefit of anesthetic, and she survived the treatment as well as the cancer.
You say, "... In God's sight [man and woman] are spiritually equal, but with different roles according to their human nature - the strengths and weaknesses of each complimenting the other." If I understand things - I am sure that I might not - then your idea of "complimentarity" disqualifies you as a present-day feminist. You must either believe in a perfect congruency or in the other kind of linear-hierarchy. Do I have that correctly? However! you do qualify as a feminist of Jane Austen's time. If you read, say, Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), you will see the idea of "complimentarity" expressed.
If someone wants to explore the views that were expressed by women in the Georgian and Regency periods at this site, she is very welcome to do so. Both my wife and daughter are feminists so it is not like I cannot cope with such a view. I think that if someone were to begin an exploration of such matters at this bulletin board, it could only be a good thing and I hope you or someone else will take up the challenge.
Maybe I can start things by saying something provocative - something I have never known anyone else to say. (So, this idea may be completely wrong.) I think that Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived at a relative high point of awareness and codification of women's rights. People who believe in the steady, linear theory of human progress will not even be able to decipher my hypothesis - one must be able to comprehend a cyclic or wave-like nature in the affairs of humanity. I was accosted once by a European who demanded to know how I could admire the U.S. Constitution when it did not give women the right to vote? I had to explain to her that our Constitution does not give anyone the right to vote; that was and remains the prerogative of states. The Constitutional amendment that secured women's voting rights, in this century, does not give that right directly, it merely forbids states from setting voting qualifications on the basis of sex. It is my understanding - perhaps I am wrong - but, it is my understanding that both New York and New Jersey entered the union (1788?) while granting women their voting rights; however, those rights were later revoked in the early part of the next century. (Also, some few states always provided voting rights to women, I know that Utah was one of those.) Something similar happened in France; after their revolution (1789), women were given voting and property rights identical to those of men. But, once again, those rights were eventually revoked in the 1800s. I don't know what caused the fall-back. French women did not regain voting rights until 1945. Many male voices of Jane-Austen's time, such as Fielding and Richardson, clearly took the side of women's-rights advocates. Those ideas are unmistakably expressed in their novels. And of course, there is the simple fact that English women had become very prominent in literary authorship during our Lady's time. Jane Austen was not at the leading edge of that wave.
Did you never notice that the Declaration of Independence (1776) tells us that "All men are created equal ...", but, the U.S. Constitution (1787) begins, "We, the people ...". In fact, if you take the trouble you will find that great care was taken to write the Constitution in a gender-neutral form; it was "persons" this and "persons" that. An exception is Article 2, which is the one dealing with the President; there, it is "he", "him", and "his". Of course, it should be acknowledged that there were no women at the Constitutional convention, but then some man or other has always been at the leading edge of feminism.
I am just beginning a serious look at feminism in our Dear Jane's day including the writings of others - Burney, Wollenstonecraft, etc. I will keep you posted on my findings and progress. I do appreciate input from others because I readily admit that I don't know everything - I am just learning. Though I am glad to hear that I qualify as a feminist of Jane's time. Part of my exploration will include what she had to say on the subject.
You said: People who believe in the steady, linear theory of human progress will not even be able to decipher my hypothesis - one must be able to comprehend a cyclic or wave-like nature in the affairs of humanity. I don't have a problem with that. Is that something like the old saw "history repeats itself"? I suppose I will have to include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in my study after your thought provoking statements.
From the Meister: Excellent! - Go for it! - Except, don't forget to duck (you know me.) You might also enjoy knowing a bit about Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams. Oh, and you might enjoy an encyclopedia article about Thomas Paine. Karl Marx said, "history repeats itself - first as a tragedy and then as a farce." The '50s and early '60s were tragic and the late '60s and '70s were a farce.
I have now completed my first impressions of our Lady's literary influences. I will be turning to other things for a while - a long while - and I thought to set down my conclusions.
First of all, let me summarize some references. Two of Jane Austen's brothers gave hints. Henry Austen is unequivocal,
"... [My sister's] reading was very extensive in history and belles lettres; and her memory extremely tenacious. Her favorite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse. It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in Sir Charles Grandison, gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation, she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so low a scale of morals. ..."
So, Henry dissed Fielding (1707-1754) while implicating William Cowper (1731-1800), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Brother, James Austen, wrote a poem to his sister to celebrate her first published novel. In that he mentioned Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) in an interesting way. C.S. Lewis made an independent case for Samuel Johnson:
"... [Jane Austen] is described by someone in Kipling's worst story as the mother of Henry James. I feel much more sure that she is the daughter of Dr. Johnson: she inherits his common sense, his morality, even much of his style. ..."
I will have much to say about these guesses further down in this posting. I can interject here that Jane Austen's dates are 1775-1817, so all of those authors were old men to her - men from her grandfather's or great-grandfather's generation. That doesn't mean that they could not have been influences, but the observation does encourage us to look a bit nearer to her own generation.
It is my impression that, when Jane Austen was growing up, most English novelists were women; Sir Walter Scott is an obvious exception. The contemporary novelists that our Lady seemed to admire most were Fanny Burney (1752-1840), and Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) is another mentioned quite frequently. In fact, it seems that Burney and Edgeworth may have been admired by the entire Austen family - Brother Henry said this:
"... [my sister] sent into the world those novels, which by many have been placed on the same shelf as the works of a D'Arblay [Fanny Burney] and an Edgeworth. ..."
That is amusing! Who, today, would rank the novels of either of those women with Jane Austen's? No one! - but no shade in heaven would celebrate that fact any more than the ghost of Henry Austen.
I am going to conclude this introduction by giving you links to other web sites that provide information on these candidates. Here are sites devoted to Samuel Johnson, Fielding and Richardson, and Lawrence Sterne. An excellent web site for information on the women authors is Cathy Decker's web site. Another excellent resource is Jack Lynch's web site. Of course, there is Henry Churchyard's Jane Austen Information Page. See, especially, his page on Jane Austen's literary allusions. There are some other at least remotely relevant links: here are sites devoted to John Bunyan, William Hogarth, and Madame de La Fayette.
At this point, I can give you my uneducated opinions. Quite simply, I think that Jane Austen's main influence on substance was Samuel Richardson, while the chief influence on style was Henry Fielding - or someone or some persons a good deal like Fielding. I very much like the way that Henry Austen described Richardson's influence on his sister, with special emphasis on The History of Sir Charles Grandison (12/11/00 and 1/5/01.) The plots of both Sense and Sensibility (1/18/01) and Persuasion (2/8/01) are themes explored in Grandison. Also, Richardson's Charlotte Grandison is bound to remind many readers of Elizabeth Bennet (1/13/01, 1/31/01, and 2/3/01.) Of course, the themes and the characterization are better done by Jane Austen because our Lady was the better writer - by far. And, as Henry Austen suggests, Jane Austen had problems with Richardson and not just problems in style (12/15/00 and 1/21/01.) Yes indeed, in terms of style, we must look elsewhere.
Now, our Lady certainly admired Fanny Burney (Madame d'Arblay) and she may have admired Maria Edgeworth even more; so, it is logical to look there for influences in style. However, I do not find much similarity in the works of either woman with those of Jane Austen for reasons I have noted elsewhere. If you are certain that a woman or women must have been Jane Austen's primary influence(s), and you wish to prove it, you might start at Cathy Decker's web site. My opinion is that the earlier woman writer who produced something very close to those of Jane Austen's is Madame de La Fayette (1634-1693); her The Princess of Cleves (1678) is very suggestive of our Lady's style and purpose (10/13/00.) That is my opinion, but others will judge otherwise; for example, Linda has seen much that is interesting in the writings of Mrs. Radcliffe in this regard (1/23/01.)
You might say that Samuel Johnson was the guy, after all that is what C.S. Lewis said and Lewis had credentials! With all due respect to my betters, and freely acknowledging my as yet superficial study of Johnson, I humbly and respectfully submit, "no damn way!" In fact, I have developed some serious reservations about both Johnson's style (4/17/00) and his common sense (4/10/00.) It is not that I did not find anything of Johnson's that reminded me of Jane Austen, on the contrary (5/13/00); however, I was looking for a more comprehensive kind of similarity in order to record an "influence." I am sure that Lewis was familiar with a far broader selection of Johnson's writing than I am; so, maybe my thinking will evolve - I doubt it.
Again, to me, Jane Austen's model on style was Henry Fielding. That judgment will take a lot of explaining. Maybe my pronouncement is a prejudice based upon the fact that, for me, Fielding is the other great writer in the English Georgian/Regency period. - There are so many similarities in wit and composition, that I will not be easily knocked off my position.
Obviously, I am circumspect over Henry Austen's thoughts on Fielding. I am even skeptical about the possibility that Jane Austen herself "recoiled from every thing gross ... Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so low a scale of morals" when regarding Fielding. This is an excerpt from a letter our Lady wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on January 10, 1796:
"... After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is well behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove - it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same colored clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded. ..."
(Many think that Jane Austen was in love with Tom Lefroy - she was just twenty years old when that letter was written.) Well, the tone strikes me as easy and joking - no sign of "recoiling" there! I wonder if it is possible that Henry was expressing his own attitudes and then attributing them to his sister?
Notice that the words "moral" and "morality" are used by Henry Austen, C.S. Lewis, and by Samuel Johnson in his comparison of Fielding and Richardson. Mark Twain is alleged to have said, "the difference between using the right word or not, is the same as lightning striking or not." I believe that, and I cannot see any bright flashes in the use of "morality" by those men. To me, in any context, "morality" refers to ideas of right and wrong. Therefore, I can freely assert that Fielding's morality is identical to Jane Austen's, to Richardson's, to Johnson's, to Linda's, or to mine. I defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise. Also, this particular brand of morality is the very superior sort - especially mine. What these commentators are confusing with "morality" is a view of human nature! Indeed, I agree, it is there that Fielding separates himself from the others I mentioned (except me); it is there that the similarity between Jane Austen and Richardson is a justified claim. Also, in that regard, Fielding is pessimistic, harsh, more skeptical, more unflinching, more masculine - I don't know if that is better or worse than the views of the other two - I don't know if that is better or worse, it just "is."
Fielding delineated what he thought was required of the good novelist - genius, learning, wide-ranging experience, and heart. The Janite will recognize this list because our Jane Austen meets all criteria every bit as well as Fielding himself. The wise Janite will say a special "amen" to "heart." (Perhaps it is "heart" that brother James Austen is claiming for his sister with his mention of Sterne - see 8/15/00.) There is a way, of course, in which I can be right about what I think I see without contradicting brother Henry - it may be that both Fielding and Jane Austen were inspired by the same literary tradition. That might be the explanation of the reason that I think I see the same writing skills (logic, ironic humor, efficiency, and heart) in both writers. I suspect not, but have not sufficient background to know for certain.
Jane Austen had special qualities and perhaps that insight is the main benefit one gains by investigating other writers in the Georgian and Regency periods. Her exquisite good taste in style and purpose make her novels unique. Perhaps an equally endearing quality is her progressive nature - her gender neutrality, ethnic sensitivity, and her relationship to nature are compatible with the best standards of today (1/23/01.) You will never observe a Janite required to invent a complicated explanation that begins with, "we have to understand her attitude in the context of her times blah, blah, blah."
I can end with a quiz: what important element is present in all of the following novels, but is completely missing from the novels of Jane Austen?
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