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The Jane Austen thing.

Would you believe that 55 percent women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, would, if they had the chance, trade their present situations for the 1950s stay-at-home life of June Cleaver? That's what a recent Parent magazine survey purports to find. And while this particular set of numbers may not be as sociologically or statistically accurate as the magazine suggests, the general idea--that today's women have at least a few qualms about the brave new world of postfeminist "liberation"--seems, even by casual observation, to carry more than a grain of truth. How else to explain the huge box-office and bookstore popularity of Jane Austen and the Brontes with the twenty-something, Gen X crowd?

As I write, no fewer than three Austen novels--Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Emma (radically altered, updated, and revamped as Clueless)--have been made into successful feature films. And young girls, who would never before have dreamed of reading such classics except in Cliffs Notes form, are suddenly carrying well-thumbed copies of her novels around on subways and in coffee bars everywhere. The recent film version of Jane Eyre, featuring Hollywood superstar William Hurt as an unlikely Mr. Rochester, has followed closely upon the Austen run, and it cannot be too long before other long-dead literary ladies find their way to cineplexes and Barnes & Noble new-release shelves.

Of course, as women, all these heroines make for fine role models: intelligent, strong, mature, and admirable in many ways, especially for their time. But it's the fascination with that backward time that seems puzzling.

What is the appeal of these highly mannered and moralistic tales of rigidly choreographed courtship and marriage rituals to a generation of young women brought up to assume they could "have it all" whenever they wanted it, simply by stuffing their Gold Cards, PowerBooks, Trojan Pluses, and "Just Do It" Nikes in their backpacks or briefcases? What could be drawing them--these fans of the unfettered, wild-girl antics of Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, and P.J. Harvey--to the soft-focus visions of female passivity?

As a female member of a somewhat older demographic segment, I would not, for all the tea in Victorian England, go back to the stay-at-home world I struggled so hard and so long to escape from. But I must confess that I understand the nostalgic urge to escape into earlier, more gender-controlled and limited eras.

I, like so many other women, loved Emma Thompson's masterful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I savored the luxury of sinking into a fairy-tale landscape, safe and secure in the knowledge that however bleak and unfair the fates of the delightful sisters, Elinor and Marianne, two Prince Charmings, worthy of their grace and virtue, would inevitably appear at their out-of-the-way cottage, in their out-of-the-way village, to save them. And 9. the pleasures of that lushly scenic, elegantly witty, brilliantly literate, cinematic wait.

Why was I so enthralled with so retrograde a view of women's fate, one in which passivity, decorum, and "holding one's tongue"--no matter what the provocation--were a woman's greatest virtues, marriage her only non-tragic option, and even that option negotiated in a manner that included no input from her? Because of the guaranteed happy ending for those who did what was expected in a world in which "what was expected" was clear and easy to understand and accomplish. The sisters in Sense and Sensibility, the heroine of Persuasion, the poverty-stricken but intelligent and industrious Jane Eyre, even silly little Alicia Silverstone in Clueless--all these attractive and admirable young women learned to live according to clearly written and easily understood rules of conduct and character. As a result, they could count on a happy ending.

Therein lies the appeal of these movies and books: the vision they offer of a world in which there were rules of conduct, rules of morality, rules of virtue and character. And once one mastered and followed those rules, one would--so the fairy tale went--be rewarded with love, fulfillment, security, and peace of mind. Most importantly, the appropriate, equally virtuous, industrious, and upstanding male counterpart would emerge to wed and provide you with a secure and meaningful livelihood. Gigolos and jerks could and did apply, of course. But charming and seductive as they were, they would--we knew in advance--be seen through and sent packing before any real damage to even the most silly of maidens could be done.

As for the rest of their lives? Well, it was the Nineteenth Century version of "don't ask, don't tell." The heroine always rode off into the sunset and did whatever virtuous women of high moral character and integrity did in those days. They didn't need to fuss about finding an appropriate career because they were not allowed to do so. And as a result, they didn't need to worry about child care, downsizing, relocation, the double day. And what a relief that all must have been! Or so it looks in these lovely movies, filled with elegantly appointed mansions and cottages, delightfully fitted and accessorized gowns, even for the less well-endowed--physically or financially.

Women today have so many other, better, fantasies to nurture and plan for, fantasies that--at last--have every possibility of coming true, or so we are told.

What about the Gold Card, PowerBook, power-suit combo that will, we hear, take you at least up to the glass ceiling--not quite equality, but a lot further from the village gates than Jane Austen ever dreamed of getting?

What about the easy to find, "I-brought-my-own" condom packet, with its guarantee of tragedy-free sexual pleasure for any young woman with a quick pick-up line or handy cell phone?

What about the gloriously unfettered Courtney and Alanis and P.J., free at last to rail in four-letter-word rage across a multi-media spectrum of lucrative outlets, at the betrayal, cruelty, and just plain dorkiness of the men they still have to deal with, but not--thank heaven--get stuck with for life anymore?

Well, the truth is--and here is the great appeal of sensible, accepting Jane Austen today--that the "liberated" life of the independent woman, as the marketplace economy has fashioned it, is not, as a friend of mine is fond of reminding me, all it's cracked up to be. The new world in which we liberated women can now easily negotiate power deals, break through barriers, and soar to the heights is actually less glamorous and more rocky than the hype would have us believe. And even those of us who make it, so I hear, are not enjoying the serenity that Austen's and the Bronte's heroines seemed always to achieve at journey's end.
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Title Annotation:Culture
Author:Rapping, Elaine
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Cynthia McKinney.
Next Article:Melrose Place.

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