Thursday, February 13, 2020

Random Thoughts on Jane Austen

Over the last couple academic calendar breaks, I've spent quite a bit of time with a couple friends from work playing Marrying Mr Darcy, watching various film versions of Pride & Prejudice, and talking about our own personal fan theories of Jane Austen. Have you ever wondered what librarians talk about when they hang out socially? In our case, yes, it was books. Well okay, a boardgame about a book, and several film adaptations of the same book. But, still, booooks.

Here are some of my / our thoughts, in no particular order.

- Lizzie and Darcy want to smash. The plot of Pride & Prejudice doesn't really make sense unless you think that the two of them are strongly sexually attracted to each other pretty much from the moment they first meet. (And before you say "of course, Anne, it's a love story," consider that what I mean is that this is NOT a story about two people falling in love. It's a story about two people who are immediately in love with one another figuring out how to LIKE each other.)

Why does Darcy keep attending social functions and seeking out Lizzie to talk to, when by his own admission, he hates attending social functions and doesn't like talking to people? Why does Lizzie put up with Darcy being such an awful conversationalist and insulting her constantly, when by her own admission, every word out of his mouth makes her angry?

I don't think either character's behavior makes sense unless you accept this premise. The whole plot is about the two of them getting to know one another well enough to actually figure out some way to like each other and ignore or tolerate all the things they instinctively can't stand about each other. But why do they bother? Why do they keep spending time together before they like each other? Why do they continue to look for excuses to overlook one another's shortcomings? Because they want to bang. From the first time they lay eyes on each other, they both want to have sex. That fact is what drives the rest of the action.

This interpretation also helps make sense of Darcy's first proposal and Lizzie's rejection of it. Why does Darcy propose to a woman he doesn't even like? Because even though he doesn't like her, he does want to do her. Why does Lizzie say no? It's a little more complicated. She says no to Collins because she wants to marry for love. She's not willing to get married just so she can have money. For much the same reason, she says no to Darcy because she doesn't want to get married just so she can have sex. She's conflicted, because she does want to jump him, but she wants more than that too. She wants love, and it takes most of the rest of the plot for her to learn enough about him to overcome all her reasons for disliking him, even though she's in love with him from the start.

The different film versions don't all handle this point equally well. Lizzie and Darcy have an immediate emotional attraction and spend the rest of the story trying to reconcile that with their intellectual needs and social obligations. And although that reconciliation is hard work, they pursue it because their emotions won't allow either one of them to simply write the other one off.
To my mind, one of the clearest visual indicators of this kind of attraction
is when you can't take your eyes off the person you're attracted to ...

... when you can't break eye contact, when you can't look away.
That's attraction the audience can see, too.

- Muppet Pride & Prejudice needs to happen yesterday. Miss Piggy is clearly meant to play Mrs Bennett, and Kermit wouldn't make a bad Mr Bennett. Gonzo makes a likely Bingley, and Sam the Eagle would be a pretty convincing Collins. Seriously, how has this not already happened yet? Can someone please throw money at this problem?

- I really need to watch Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Beautiful people in Regency-era ballgowns sword fighting with monsters?
I was hoping for "how am I not in that movie?"
But this works almost as well.

- Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins feel remarkably open to interpretation. Not all the characters are particularly open. For example, Wickham is a creep. Oh my god, Wickham is such a disgusting creep. (More on this below.) Every time we played Marrying Mr Darcy, none of us wanted to end up engaged to Wickham, even if he was a "good match" for our heroine. But by contrast, Charlotte and Collins both feel open multiple understandings.

When you compare the Collin Firth mini-series and the Kiera Knightly film, in one version, when Lizzie rejects Collins, he and Charlotte end up engaged within a couple days. In the other, he leaves the house, embarrassed, to go for a walk, she meets him on his walk, and by the time he gets back to the house, like half an hour later, they're engaged.

In one version, when Lizzie visits Charlotte after she's married, and she's talking about how Collins is busy with his gardening and his devotion to the Lady Catherine De Bourgh, she seems so desperately sad and lonely, like "Lizzie, help me, I'm so alone, I didn't know what I was getting myself into!" But in the other version, when she tells her all that, she looks so wise and smug, like "Yup, he's outside, I have the whole house to myself, I'm alone all the time, I'm a genius, and I love my perfect life."

As an aside, in Marrying Mr Darcy game, Charlotte is the most "cunning" character. We made a lot of jokes about how "cunning" was code for "oldness", and then discovered that there are a bunch of really insulting traditional nicknames and sayings about how women above a certain age are considered un-marriageable because they're "too old" (no, I won't link to them here). You can probably guess what we joked "friendliness" was slang for.

Collins' two most distinguishing characteristics are his cluelessness about Lizzie's lack of attraction to him, and his comical over-devotion to the Lady Catherine De Bourgh. These two traits push in two very different directions. One is an interpretation I like to call "Neckbeard Collins". This is a Collins who is just an over-the-top parody of every trope of contemporary toxic masculinity. He has a neckbeard, he wears a fedora, he says "m'lady" and somehow manages to spew crumbs on you every time he talks. He's a redpillar, an incel, and a PUA in his own mind. And he's a joke, no one can take him seriously. The fact of his loathesomeness serves as a critique of all the qualities he exemplifies. (Wickham is a neckbeard too, it's just harder to laugh at him. Seriously, fuck that guy forever.) I would love to see a film version that leans into the Neckbeard Collins interpretation.

Another interpretation  is "Gay Collins", where Collins is as a gay man living in a time when he knows he can't live openly or love who he wants. He offers to marry one of the Bennett sisters because they're his cousins and he doesn't want to make them homeless, but if they're not interested, he doesn't really care. He has to marry someone though, because society and his patroness expect it. Enter cunning Charlotte Lucas. (More on her in a sec.) He likes gardening, interior decorating, and spending time with his women friends. Perhaps he's a bit of a queen, but that's fine. He's happy with who he is.

And Charlotte's happy with who she is too. In this interpretation, Charlotte is a lesbian. Theirs is a marriage of convenience. Does this Charlotte like Lizzie? Well, Lizzie is her best and oldest friend, they've been inseparable most of their lives. But Lizzie likes men, even if she's not ready to marry one, and Charlotte knows that her friend will never really like her back, not in the same way, and that she might after all decide to get married soon. So in this interpretation, Charlotte and Collins aren't in love with each other any more than they are in any other version, but they are each able to live with perhaps the only other person who can understand their situation. I've never seen anything like that in any version of Pride & Prejudice, but I'd like to.

One last thing about Collins, how does he not realize that Mary Bennett likes him?! I know that he's supposed to be so full of himself that it makes him unobservant, but seriously, how oblivious can one person get? Is it even possible for Mary be any more obvious about her affections? And yes, she's younger than him, but he's not that old, she's not that far off from adulthood, and it's not like there's actually a rush for him to get married. He could wait, if it meant being in a relationship with someone who actually likes him.

I don't mean to seem glib about the age issue in Mary and Collins' case, because age differences and issues of consent are quite serious in our last bit of fanon. If you want to leave on a funny note, this is your opportunity to do so. Seriously, stop reading now if you want to avoid thinking about what exactly it is that Wickham did off-camera that makes him so detestable.

You can leave by clicking a link to see The New Yorker's defense of Charlotte Lucas, or LitHub's defense of Mrs Bennett. Spoiler alert, when the alternative is homelessness and abject poverty, there might indeed be something to be said in favor of marrying for the money, particularly if that marriage can be companionable, and it saves your widowed mother and orphaned sisters, too.

- Wickham got Georgiana Darcy pregnant. Okay, I warned you. So you know how Darcy leaves to go back home to Pemberley, and it's a huge problem because Jane and Bingley are finally getting really serious in their courtship, then somehow Darcy persuades Bingley to go with him? How does he do that exactly? What could Darcy possibly say to Bingley to make him leave the woman he's falling in love with? And is it really just because Darcy's feeling bored and anti-social? No, I think it's because Georgiana is having a baby. Wickham's baby.

Georgiana Darcy spends practically the entire story on bedrest. When Lizzie (and the audience) finally meet her, there's a sense that she's quite fragile, that she's just barely gotten over some life-altering ordeal. When Darcy tells Lizzie about Georgiana, the timeline he describes puts Wickham breaking off his relationship with Georgiana about nine months before Darcy and Bingley ghost Jane and yeet back to Pemberley.

Darcy only ever hints about what Wickham did to his sister, but I think it's fair to say that he did more than just break her young heart. I think Wickham raped Georgiana, and she got pregnant. I don't like this interpretation, but I'm convinced it's correct. When Georgiana finally meets Lizzie, she's thrilled to see her, probably because she's been in seclusion for like a year up to that point, healing from her wounds and keeping her secret so that she'll eventually be able to re-enter society. A society that, if it knew the truth, would judge her rather than him. My most burning question is, what happened to her baby?

I remember watching Lost in Austen a few years ago, and for some reason, one of the things they're trying to do in that is to find an interpretation that rehabilitates Wickham. One thing that struck me was his complaint that whatever he might have done, he didn't deserve to be punished by getting shipped off to die in a warzone. It reminded me of the scene in Persepolis where the narrator's grandmother scolds her and tells her that even though a man was sexually harassing her, he didn't deserve to have her get him in trouble with the Islamist morality police.

I can intellectually understand the moral argument that says that state-sanctioned violence is worse than the crimes it's meant to punish, but emotionally it's incredibly frustrating to hear that we couldn't possibly hurt this man who hurt someone else, to hear more sympathy for what might happen to him than for the person he already happened to. "No criminal justice" shouldn't mean "no other kind of justice, either." If Wickham weren't being sent to the front lines to get shot by Napoleon, what exactly would stop him from repeating his same pattern of grooming and abuse over and over again? If every one of his crimes is kept hidden to protect the honor of the young women he's injured, and he himself never faces any punishment for them, (indeed if he's rewarded for with payments of hush money), then what kind of protection is there for the next young woman he selects as a target?

One thing my friends and I kept worrying about in both the Firth and Knightly versions is, is Lydia going to be okay? She seems happy, but she's also a child, and her husband is a child molester. She seems like she wanted to marry him, but also, everyone else wanted her to marry him to save their own reputations. Lizzie acts like the test of Darcy's love is that he was willing to spend a fortune to keep her family from being scandalized. But perhaps the real test would be, would he love her enough to marry her even if her family was scandalized? And does anyone love Lydia enough to keep her away from Wickham, even at cost to themselves?

Austen composed her story so that by fortunate coincidence, what's good for Lizzie is also good for Lydia, and as mentioned Wickham gets what amounts to a death sentence disguised as a career promotion, but I wonder what that part of the story would look like if the characters believed their silence helped Wickham more than it helped Georgiana or Lydia. If there was no fortunate coincidence and they had to make consequential decisions? I suppose I'm wondering that, not just because of the MeToo movement, but because questions about what moral courage looks like have been on everyone's minds lately.


  1. These are all excellent thoughts. I'd never considered those interpretations of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, but they make sense. And your reading of poor Georgiana Darcy's situation also makes a horrible kind of sense. Why would anyone try to rehabilitate Wickham? He's an awful man.