Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bennet

Women in White

It is not everyone who watches, in the short span of a weekend, two films that are about groups of women and their roles in society; women whose ultimate goal is love or, at the very least, marriage; sets of female characters who are separated by almost precisely two hundred years and their respective referenced films separated by fifteen. I lay before you statistics that reveal that, oddly, not much has changed in the space of time.

The first is Bridesmaids, a humorous (knowing that humor often derives from pain) look at women in the 21st century: independent, contemporary females who apparently have way more on the ball than the males they are surrounded by – but do want to be surrounded by – and still dress for the ball, at every turn, whether midnight approaches or not – always keeping their eyes on the balls, in every respect. Yes, I laughed my ass off when they behaved in ways that are so counter to acceptable “feminine behavior”; and yet, there they all were still wanting to be feminine – whatever that means. The goals have not changed; perhaps the means have. It is the same fairy-tale dream of crinoline and taffeta and the magic of happily-ever-after-ness. These film characters constitute a group of sisters of one sort: sister-survivors of a still male-dominated world.

The second film, but chronologically first (and you might feel a whiplash effect here), is Pride & Prejudice, the 1995 BBC version. Some of you may know that its five-hours’ viewing is an annual event in these parts by way of honoring a deceased mother, and the obligation is not a hardship or an unpleasant experience. But having just seen Bridesmaids, this time P&P was viewed in a different light. Or is it different? Okay, so in P&P there is a group of Regency Period women – blood sisters in various combinations – who are unable to earn or even inherit money or property given the unjust laws. Their goals are clear: obtain comfort, have status, protect the future of their families – and some want love, as well. And, yes, in this, too, there are plenty of balls, but they are the type with music and dancing. Plus, in P&P, although women are disadvantaged in their status, they are often (not always) more decisive about what they want or don’t want, and are pretty good at getting it. Lizzie can best any man she encounters and does so, despite her fate of being forced into a life of dependence; she is smart, accomplished, has wisdom that exceeds her years and is not always the best judge of character but, nevertheless, doesn’t allow herself to be used by men.

In Bridesmaids, Annie does let herself be used and seems to suffer from low self-esteem. Others in her group (and let’s mention here that this is an older crowd than the P&P group) are in various relationships, mostly unsatisfying. The most “out there” and fearless character is Megan – and, interestingly, she is the least feminine. Besides being hilarious, she is the one who comments most on female stereotypes – in a kind of butch way. In P&P, it is the sister Mary who steps out of the box in a similar fashion (similar within the context of the times). She is not depicted as being heroic; she is bookish, self-contained, pious and extremist – ridiculously so, even in that era. But she is the most nontraditional female. Her only interest in the opposite sex is a bit of infatuation with the irritably pious Mr. Collins but, of course, the feelings are not mutual. However, Mary does not exhibit signs of low self-esteem. Frustration with her sisters, yes, and society at large, but not with herself. 

Et tu, Megan. In the modern age, Megan gets to act-out what Mary must suppress, so maybe therein lies the difference. However, both characters are depicted as outsiders within the accepted norms. And we get an explanation in Bridesmaids, when Megan gets her moment of truth-telling in revealing her reasons for her tough demeanor, a caring attempt to shake Annie to her senses. Whether it is 2011 or 1813, it still seems to be about women’s idea of self, based on societal expectations. There is a search for Prince Charming in both stories and, yet, in both, the women are the ultimate deciders. It is their choice, their place to determine whether to like themselves, when to make a move, how to present themselves to the world – or, still like little girls, play dress-up – and find ways to catch the man of their dreams or their dreams of a man. The hope is that they catch themselves first.

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Sense and Prejudice

Comes word that a scholar is pretty certain that she’s in possession of a contemporaneous portrait of Jane Austen, making it, apparently, only the second authenticated likeness of the writer, and compared to the grumpy-looking one that’s been knocking around for two centuries (there’s also one drawing with her back to us, but what good is that, exactly?), this is one that shows her seemingly confident and content. Still not exactly the girl you’d ask to the prom, but not one who would say no if you did, or glare at you, castratingly. There’s a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this portrait; sad to say, also a bit of Tony Bennett.

What Austen looked like has been a topic of much interest among those who are interested in such things, a lot of Janeites among them. Was she pretty, but shy, and wrote out of unrequited crushes? Was she plain, but a dreamer? Was she, despite the biographical material, a painted-up girl who, between novels, liked to party hearty? Was she describing herself when she wrote about Miss Bennet? Was it an idealized version of herself? Or was it not her at all, physically – maybe she skewed closer to Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the Cute-o-Meter.

But who, besides academics and superficial fangirls, cares, really? There’s not a clue, except maybe the rumor of blindness, about what Homer may have looked like (if, in fact, there even was a historical Homer, one person who spun the Iliad and Odyssey tales). And the many “likenesses” of Shakespeare (another guy who is Existence Challenged) run the appearance spectrum between Johnny Depp and Clarabell.

Does anatomy determine destiny in the writing field? To a degree, it can – a true lack of physical beauty, coupled with a knowledge of it that cripples social intercourse, can lead  one to imprison oneself in a cloistered life in which writing is the escape/therapy. 

But, short of disinterment and forensic investigation, whether this current “portrait” of Jane Austen resembles Jane Austen is just a lot of twaddle. If you want to know, if you need to know, if you have even a smidgen of interest in knowing what Austen looked like, read her books. She’ll be in her characters, probably dispersed around, with a little bit of her in one character, a tad in another. But (and I can hear the Janeites keening on this one) don’t concentrate too much on the people in her books because, although they are the mechanisms that perform actions and have consequences and rewards bestowed on them because of their actions, they are a fairly similar and interchangeable lot living fairly similar plots, book to book. Rather, what Jane Austen looks like is in her places. More than in any other way in her writing does Austen reveal her true self, the most accurate reflection of her, than in her loving descriptions of the England she knew or imagined.

You want to know what Jane Austen looked like? She has the grandeur of Pemberley, the  warm plainness of the Bennet house, the unhappy harshness of Barton Cottage, the breathtaking sweep of Derbyshire and the Peak District, the classist Cinderella awkwardness created by being in Mansfield Park … you get the picture. Placeness as art, art in placeness, self-image as place.

What did Jane Austen look like? Just read. You’ll see her. And the portrait comes in a very nice frame.


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