Message from the president: "Lovely and Amazing": why the heroines of Jane Austen's world truly are.
Oh, where are the heroines of yesteryear? The strong, the virtuous, the impeccably competent: Anitgone, Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre. And most especially, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen's model of admirable womanhood? ...
Plenty of books feature tough women detectives, and contemporary authors, like Margaret Drabble. Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, and Toni Morrison, have produced a raft of novels with complicated heroines, who are neither pathetic nor laughable. But they don't resonate like ... Elizabeth Bennet. (section 4, p. 5)
Lewin's article then examines the hapless contemporary literary heroines Bridget Jones, who needs no introduction to you readers, and Kate Reddy of Allison Pearson's Don't Know How She Does It, who undermines the 1990's phenomenon of the super mom, able to balance the perfect home, model children, and successful career.
The second event was my seeing the widely admired film "Lovely and Amazing," written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, about a mother (Jane, played by that fine Irish actress Brenda Blethyn, whose appearing in the film made me want to see it in the first place), her two birth daughters (Catherine Keener plays the elder, trapped in a marriage-gone-bland, but unable to pull her socks up, so to speak, and Emily Mortimer, as the younger, a wanna be actress, insecure about her body), and her adopted African-American daughter, who despite being insecure about her hair and only about ten years old, turns out to be the person with the best sense of self. I became so irritated by the insecurities, inadequacies, and inanities of the three women characters that I left the film calling it "Lovely But Annoying."
The objects of the two events, reading the newspaper article and seeing the film, are perfectly connected because the former bemoans that "It is a truth universally acknowledged that heroines are now often hapless," which is borne out in the film. But where does Jane Austen come in--other than Lewin's tapping into Jane Austen's much-adapted opening line of Pride and Prejudice and the AGM's being sandwiched between the reading and viewing events?
If I may beg your pardon for turning to the sandwich metaphor (similar to Wentworth's using that nut metaphor, which we all forgive--don't we?), Jane Austen provides the meat. And the 2002 AGM, several talks from which are featured as papers in this issue of Persuasions, helped to remind me once again why.
A woman's life in Jane Austen's world was not all afternoon tea and country balls. Her heroines' lives are not, and neither was Jane Austen's. As the AGM reminded us, women lacked legal and fiscal rights, and they suffered physically with childbearing, anorexia, menopause, and other physical conditions that today's medical knowledge can largely treat. Yet other than Marianne, whom we tolerate because she is seventeen and in love (but she plays the piano extremely well, which must have required much practice), and Emma, whose errors occur in the contexts of misplaced other-directedness and whom many of us love because she truly feels sorry for her errors, and she is extremely patient with and loving to her taxing father, Austen's women do not fall into the hapless and helpless category of most of today's film and novel heroines.
Elinor paints screens, and both she and Marianne are readers; Catherine is practical, good-humored, outdoorsy, and "well-read." Ann is patient, better read than Catherine in higher quality literature, a fine pianist, a fluent speaker of Italian--so much so that she can instantaneously translate Italian into perfect English sentences--and smart. Fanny grows into incredible self-possession, reads, quotes poetry, and calmly keeps Lady Bertram in fringe. And then there is Elizabeth Bennet, who takes joy in many things: she is even able to leap tall stiles in a single bound.
My point is that Jane Austen's heroines are stronger women than Bridget, Kate, and the women in "Lovely and Amazing" because they do not have the time to indulge in the "victimology" that Tamar Lewin observes in the contemporary female characters. When one is doing "work," reading, painting, practicing piano, studying languages, and also facing the difficulties of being a woman in Jane Austen's World--when a woman, unlike in our world, has to rely the kindness of husbands, brothers, or friends--she does not have the time for self-pity. That's why Jane Austen is the meat: her heroines are lovely and amazing.
Presidents of JASNA
1979-81 J.DAVID (JACK) GREY co-founder, New York, NY
1981-84 JOSEPH J. COSTA Nanuet, NY
1984-88 LORRAINE HANAWAY Wayne, PA
1988-92 EILEEN SUTHERLAND Vancouver, BC
1992-96 GARNET BASS Raleigh, NC
1996-2000 ELSA SOLENDER New York, NY
JOAN KLINGEL RAY
Joan Klingel Ray is Professor of English and President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she also chairs the Department.