Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Take women off the pedestal

It may seem obvious to us, in the twenty first century, that no one wants to be put on a pedestal and told what's best for them. No one wants to be worshipped - when the power and control are in the hands of the worshippers.

I've read just a handful of online reviews of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and it seems to me it was one of her more controversial novels. With some works of fiction, you have to assume the author had perspective and a message she/he wanted to send.

Whether or not you like or dislike Fanny (the main character), who is conservative, timid and the definition of "a wet blanket" - she is definitely put on a pedestal by both male lead characters in the book (Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram). In all reality, everyone in the novel (except perhaps Fanny's parents and sister) have their own ideas about who (whom?) Fanny should marry. None of which seem to be remotely related to Fanny's own feelings - or taking into account how she feels about the matter. Henry is rich and has many social connections - so obviously he is a good choice. She's often counseled "You'll learn to love him". Women at this time were put in the unenviable position of attempting to control their husbands through various means - Fanny is also assured that she could control Henry because he is so devoted to her.

I certainly understand and appreciate the criticism of focusing on the "classics" - the misdirected attention paid to time periods (like Regency England) and the upper leisure classes built on slavery and oppression. But I believe that Jane Austen's works have an undercurrent of feminism. Much has been written about their themes of social upheaval. I will just say, they are a product of their time but I believe that we can still learn from them.

So - many reviewers find this intended tension between the four main characters (Fanny, Mary Crawford, Edmund and Henry). Their actions are inter-related. Jane's own feelings and intentions about marriage (and who should end up with whom) are unclear. One reviewer (Margaret Drabble in the introduction to my edition) surmised that Jane Austen actually believed that Fanny should not dwell on her own feelings, and should have married Henry.

I disagree strongly.

I think Austen is making a strong statement against marrying for money. Couple after couple who marry for money (like Fanny's cousin Maria) find ruin. Yet Austen also doesn't seem to believe that a person should marry for love only - with the example of Fanny's own mother who is overworked and impoverished. Granted, Fanny's mother is impoverished with a servant - but still not as well off as her sister (Lady Betram) is.

Note - it's so difficult to talk about these books without referring to all the characters by name - assuming that you have read the books and remember the characters. I will have a quick cheat sheet at the end for those who haven't read it.

I agree wholeheartedly with Margaret Drabble's point that we're not supposed to feel comfortable at the end with any of the choices. There wasn't a simple solution - a simple choice for marriage (unlike some of Austen's other works). As many reviewers have pointed out - in all her books, the main characters choose who they will marry, instead of having the choice made for them. To my mind, that's a strong statement, even for the early nineteenth century. And not all cultures even today allow women even this much control over their own destinies.

I keep returning to the potential unhappy marriage between Henry and Fanny. It's just my presumption - but the relationship seems to have all the hallmarks of disaster. Henry worships Fanny. He sees her as all that's good and right with the world. She's scarcely human. This is my first warning sign.

Second, she is not interested in him. It's a very common theme - unrequited love is often the most intense. Here is a proverbial lady killer - and a lady not interested in him. Fanny becomes a challenge - and ever so much more attractive for not being head over heels in love with him. The grass is always greener, etc. As an intense observer of human behavior, I believe Austen is familiar with this scenario - and its typical result.

Women are flesh and blood - human. We're not angels - not to be overprotected and preserved. We're not perfect. And just because logically, it appears like we should make a decision - doesn't mean that we can live with ourselves afterwards. And - all people, male and female - should be able to have that choice.

Brief character synopsis -
Fanny Price - lead character - impoverished cousin sent to live with wealthy relatives (Betrams). Doesn't really speak up for herself, very emotional.
Edmund Betram - second son, friend (and cousin) to Fanny. Studying to become a preacher.
Mary Crawford - wealthy woman, witty - in love with Edmund but doesn't want him to become a clergyman.
Henry Crawford - brother of Mary - claims to worship her but flirts with many women (including married women).
Lady Betram - Edmund's mother and Fanny's aunt.
Maria Betram/Rushworth - Fanny's cousin, marries for money and runs off with a lover
Mrs. Price - Fanny's mother - married for love "beneath" her station

I realize that this is a cover of Sense and Sensibility, not Mansfield Park, but I wanted to note that the author's name isn't even on the cover. It wasn't seemly for a woman to write and publish her own work - Jane Austen's name was revealed posthumously.

1 comment:

Freckle Face Girl said...

You are right! Some women think it would be wonderful to be idolized, but not me. When I lived in Qatar, I saw extreme cases of putting women on pedestals. The men there were overly protective. I kept picturing the queen of England's life with chauffeurs, a family male always around them in public, and none of the freedoms we take for granted. They could buy anything their hearts desired, but needed a man to go with them.

Even in the US, you see women that feel they have to be perfect. It just causes too much stress.