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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Love 200 years ago Jane Austen Style

Ah, love! Somehow the rumor has been that all marriages 200 years ago, nay just a scant 50 years ago were the most vile arrangements imaginable. They couldn't possibly work out or result in actual love. Inconceivable! In our modern fiction, we see echos, reflections and exaggerations of ourselves. Jane Austen's quaint works of fiction offered just such a reflection. It wasn't always pretty and certainly there were obstacles to perfect felicity. I have just read her earliest novel, Northanger Abbey and present to you some notes of interest for both men and women.

Rakish Behavior:
The heroine--a minister's daughter, Catherine, speaks to her love interest, Henry. She was staying with his family, getting to know all of them. She speaks of her former friend, Isabella Thorpe who was engaged to her brother, James, and dropped him for Henry's brother, Captain Frederick Tilney:

'I see what she has been about. She is a vain coquette and her tricks have not been answered. I do not believe she ever had any regard either for James or for me, and I wish I had never known her.'
'It will soon be as if you never had,' said Henry.
'There is but one thing I cannot understand. I see that she has had designs on Captain Tilney, which have not succeeded; but I do not understand what Captain Tilney has been about all this time. Why should he pay her such attentions as to make her quarrel with my brother, and then fly off himself?'
'I have very little to say for Frederick's motives, such as I believe them to have been. He has vanities as well as Miss Thorpe, and the chief difference is, that, having a stronger head, they have not yet injured himself. If the effect of his behavior does not justify him with you, then we better not seek after the cause.'
'Then you will suppose he never cared about her?'
'I am persuaded that he never did.'
'And made only so for mischief's sake?'
Henry bowed his assent.
'Well, then, I must say that I do not like him at all. Though as it turned out so well for us, I do not like him at all. As it happens, there is no great harm done, because I do not think Isabella has any heart to lose, But suppose he had made her fall very much in love with him?'
'But we must first suppose Isabella to have any heart to lose - consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with a very different treatment.'
'It is very right that you should stand by your brother.'
'And if you would stand by yours, you would not be much distressed by the disappointment of Miss Thorpe. But your mind is warped by an innate general principal of integrity, and therefore not accessible to cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire for revenge.'
Catherine was complimented out of further bitterness. Frederick could not be unpardonably guilty, while Henry made himself so agreeable. She resolved on not answering Isabella's letter, and tried to think no more of it.

Alphas and Betas
In our modern terms, Catherine stood by her Beta men in her own Beta way. "Alphas" were shown for what they were and exposed as vain pretenders very quickly. I'm sure they were quite entertaining at parties, but those with any sense kept their distance. And even "Alpha" ladies with poor judgment were typically kept in check. However, both characters were shown to be equally vain. Nowadays, it's hard to tell who is who and often all ladies and all men are lumped together by both sexes and treated with ill regard.

Gold Diggers?

Catherine is sent away from the Tilney family without being given a reason. We later discover that reason: Isabella's brother, wanting Catherine for himself and being an unlikeable braggadocio, bragged about how much money Catherine's family had to General Tilney. Then later said how little. Somehow this was attributed to Catherine. But Henry knew Catherine to be of good character, offered her his hand in marriage and convinced his father of the truth. So yes, there were issues of dowry (the money a family presented to a man for the care of their daughter), but there were also issues of character. It turns out that Catherine had a good character and a generous dowry, though not an excellent one. Dowry, what a scary word! But that's how families helped each other out.

Courtship and Marriage.

Huge Courtship? Nay friends, nay. None at all. Walks in the country, a carriage ride perhaps. His sister or father were present the whole time as if it were perfectly natural and normal. Huge wedding? Nay again. In fact, it was hardly mentioned. 'Henry and Catherine were married; the bells rang and everyone smiled.'

The Age for Marriage:
The heroine was 18 and married the hero aged 26; 8 years difference. No one batted an eye over this and accused men of taking too long. Men did what men did and that was considered to be OK.

Savvy Advice:
Men, if you are ever talking to a woman who says she loves Jane Austen's novels, that is code for you to look more closely at that girl. Jane Austen's heroines are of good character or learn it quickly. The rakish men are held responsible for behaving badly and being the exception rather than the rule. Good men are shown to be good and desirable for marriage. And, yes, to be sure, no man would ever dress that way for fear of being labeled "gay", but I assure you they were manly fashions in their day and that real men did go to tea--to meet the ladies, of course! As for me, I always observe what a man says about his family and how he treats his sister. I know that most of the time, he will treat me about that well. And lastly, everyone did attend church on Sunday. Though the Bible was not quoted, in every Jane Austen story the fruit of a character
s spirit showed who they really were--as it is in real life.

I love comments!


MarkyMark said...


I've known adamant feminists who like Jane Austen's novels, so I'm not sure that this is such a good method for separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were...


SavvyD said...

I can't IMAGINE a feminist liking a single thing about what Jane Austen writes, however, I can see them liking that Jane Austen was a woman with a job as a novelist.

Anonymous said...

Anon the Jerk says:

Well, in theory that may be true, but I treat my sister like gold and it has not made me any more attractive to the women who observe that.

They all tell me what a 'catch' I am, of course. I note that none of them try to catch me themselves.

I think that modern people are without any love whatsoever, and that when a woman talks about love, she is mistaking infatuation, lust, or attraction.

SavvyD said...

Anon *I* would notice. I noticed that about Seattle.

And I haven't the foggiest notion why you decided on "Anon, the jerk." You challenge me, yes, but I might have picked "Anon Pureheart" or Mr. Lonely Heart.

Novaseeker said...

Austen's books are good reads, but they don't really encapsulate well the current scenario. She plays out well the tensions between selecting men who are exciting or apply to "sensibility" and those who are stable and apply to "sense", for example, and not just in that namesake novel.

But Austen couldn't really comprehend a world in which women were not economically dependent on men, nor one in which women felt free to have sex for simple pleasure outside of marriage. So she speaks to some of the fundamental underlying conflicts in women, I think, and rather well, but also doesn't really apply very well to the current scenario for men and women.

MarkyMark said...

Maybe he's trying to nurture & cultivate his 'inner jerk'. After all, women LOVE jerks and cads these says; they're the ones up to their necks in female attention...

Ferdinand Bardamu said...

Great work, Savvy, though I agree with MarkyMark that liking Jane Austen is a poor metric for judging a woman. My view is that feminists that like Austen are a) not reading her closely enough or b) deliberately twisting her words to fit their agenda.

SavvyD said...

My aim was not to encapsulate the current scenario, but discuss the old model as being not so awful and that there was an element of choice. I do see the flaws. Her characters are of the middle and upper middle class. She wrote from what she knew.

I should like to think that women who enjoy her stories and heroines to be more agreeable to being less feminist. Though another heroine I rather like, Anne of Green Gables was quite independent. However, she was a but a poor orphan who expected to work--much like Jane Eyre.

As for Sense and Sensibility, the feminists draw the wrong conclusion. The younger sister sees the constancy, steadfastness, kindness and other good character traits and comes to love him the older man. I also think that she repents of having wanted vainglorious things and for her cruelty. As stated before, Austen's heroines are good of heart or they learn to be.

Welmer said...

Savvy, your analysis of literature isn't half bad. It is interesting to me that although we men tend to pride ourselves on our analytical ability, women appear to be just as keen, if not more so, when it comes to social circumstances.

However, this to me shows a fundamental difference in how the sexes interpret fiction. Part of my problem with Austen is that it is too analytical, socially speaking.

I can read Melville or Dostoevsky and become entranced with the eternal questions, and absorb myself in the spectacle of these men grappling with impossible foes. Walt Whitman's Out of the Cradle does the same. The beauty of it is that there is no practical outcome, and man's defiance of fate and reality is a tragic, soulful expression of our lot in this improbable world.

For the best male authors, the social commentary is just a byline. For the best female authors, it is the bread and wine, the alpha and the omega.

I don't know if I can ever understand women, or if they could ever understand me.

SavvyD said...

Chicks dig Austen and I'm usually making observations about relationships. I'm just determined to get through the stuff that has been gathering dust--why I read the Marquez. I've got to get through Persuasion, Adam Bede, Turn of the Screw, The Arabian Nights, Great Expectations, Cuentos de la Alhambra (Washington Irving), and I'm dying to dig into the Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe)--I know the opera so well--and read a little Moliere, maybe a little Dante.

Welmer, I think you have a highly intelligent mind and a sensitive soul. Most *people* just aren't going to get you--men or women.

SavvyD said...

Oh wait...Nova--I did talk about "Alphas" and "Betas" which I have always thought was craziness, but it works with Austen because she has used that devil-may-care "Alpha" persona to varying effects.

therealbobthought said...

aren't you glad that, that those times are the past and that now days we are allowed to think more completely about decisions about what effects our lives and futures are ours to decide without outside influence. Arcane thinking is just that, Jane Austen's day has passed, alpha, beta, no matter, where love is concerned.

CS said...

Enjoyable column Savvy. I never liked Victorian fiction but I must confess to having been intrigued by Sense and Sensibility after finally having sat down to watch it.

The themes seem alien to our culture though they may have been familiar to Austen's time.

Makes me feel like I was born a hundred years too late. Oh well, feminists are ensuring the death of chivalry. I'm living proof of that though I DO treat the women I like and respect well. But strange women, while treated in a friendly manner, are viewed with suspicion until their agenda is exposed.

Men must do such things for their own good.

SavvyD said...

I'm not so sure I agree. That time had its charms. Women focused on social aspects in novels because that is what they could control in that time.

She and her heroines reflect a high degree of intelligence, moral fiber and proper use of the English language that few accomplish even today. Money bought her a fine education and she made good use of it.

Hmmm, I'm going to be giving this some more thought...

Anonymous said...


Maybe I should be Anon the Deadheart - more apt name.

For me it appears to be all over except for the complaining/crying/whateveryoucallit.

Again though, most of the secular world, and a gigantic portion of the "Christians" are WITHOUT LOVE.

They don't even know what it means.

Every time a girl that I dated offered herself sexually to me (even if they had been with other guys before), I would not take from them what is not mine.

I could do nothing about what the other guys had done, but I was not going to add to the list of men who were essentially taking some of their spirit from them.

That, in my view is more of what Christian Love is. It is NOT 'strong attraction'.

Whiskey said...

I refer you to The Jane Austen Book Club in which numerous affairs, etc., including a married teacher with her male (hunky) HS student, take place.

It's Jane Austen Updated! There's also the improbable (but female fantasy) of the younger hunk attracted to the woman twenty years his senior (repeated twice, with the fifty something Brenneman and the science fiction fan guy in his thirties, and the woman in her thirties with her HS student).

In fact "bending" Jane Austen is a sign of woman wanting it all -- "Kitchen Bitch" betas to take care of the kids, and "passionate" romance with some bad boy.

SavvyD said...

Whiskey--I can't help what someone else decided to do with it. This borders on blaming all men or all women for everything.

I've always been more partial to Clueless as a modernization of Emma.

Tiffany said...

I love Jane Austen. Have always been a huge fan. BUT what I'm noticing among girls today who are huge fans and even some older single women, is this expectation for romance to be like that of Jane Austen's novels...for men to treat them like English Gents and to find that "British" man who will sweep them off their feet with all their wealth and charm.
Just curious what you thought and if you ever read the book "How Jane Austen Ruined My Life." I haven't read it yet but I'm hoping to soon, I'm curious what the author has to say.

SavvyD said...

Tiffany--I've heard about that book and it sounds really funny.

I don't expect a guy to be like that, thought there was some wonderfulness to it.

What's nice about Jane Austen's romances is that there is actually very little romance. They get to know each other without even touching. The "romantic lead" in Northanger Abbey teases the leading lady about books and reading. This is not a show of wealth or sweeping anyone off anyone's feet.

Persuasion shows a family's fall from wealth and how they deal with that.

Let's be reasonable about this. ;)