Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gals Go Wilde

"... Perhaps I did not always love him so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself."
If I had encountered that line out of its context, I'd have guessed it was one of Oscar Wilde's aphorisms. But Jane Austen wrote it, for her character Elizabeth Bennet in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice.*

Nor does it stand alone. There's also this one from chapter 60:
Miss Bingley's congratulations to her brother, on his approaching marriage, were all that was affectionate and insincere.
And then in chapter 61, the narrator informs us that after her marriage, Elizabeth's father "delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected."

This line from chapter 20 isn't Wildean, but it jumped out at me as oddly "modern" the first time I read P&P:
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
I've always thought of Wilde's humor as unique to him, maybe even invented by him, but I'm coming to suspect that I thought so only because I hadn't read enough 19th-century English literature. That suspicion was reinforced when I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1880 novel A Fair Barbarian, about a wild young gal of the American West who descends upon her father's sleepy English hometown of Slowbridge. Nineteen-year-old Octavia Bassett appears without warning (but with six trunks full of her wardrobe) at the door of her timid maiden Aunt Belinda. Her father, Martin, is a speculator in silver-mines of great but inconsistent fortune, and just as he was about to visit his sister Belinda for the first time in thirty years, his fortune went South, as we Yanks say, and he had to hurry back to America to build it back up again. (Do fortunes go North when they recover themselves?)

Slowbridge is ruled over, socially speaking, by the gorgon-like arbiter (arbitress?) Lady Theobald, a forerunner of Wilde's Lady Bracknell but lacking Lady Bracknell's greater wealth, station, and London address.
In Slowbridge, America was not approved of -- in fact, was almost entirely ignored, as a country where, to quote Lady Theobald, "the laws were loose, and the prevailing sentiments revolutionary." It was not considered good taste to know Americans, -- which was not unfortunate, as there were none to know; and Miss Belinda Bassett had always felt a delicacy in mentioning her only brother, who had emigrated to the United States in his youth, having first disgraced himself by the utterance of the blasphemous remark that "he wanted to get to a place where a fellow could stretch himself, and not be bullied by a lot of old tabbies" [8-9]
Martin Bassett must not have been the only Slowbridge gentleman who lit out for the territories, because there are hardly any left in town by the time Miss Octavia comes to visit. There is, of course, a working-class fellow who brings her trunks from the railroad station; Mr. John Burmistone, the mill-owner, a recent immigrant in small-town terms, of whom Lady Theobald doesn't approve any more than she does of Americans; and the mild-mannered (not to say milquetoaste) curate, the Rev. Arthur Poppleton. Since none of these are gentlemen, a love interest has to be imported, in the person of Lady Theobald's nephew, Capt. Francis Barold, who drops in to visit Slowbridge and becomes fascinated by the fair barbarian.

The first confrontation between Miss Octavia of Bloody Gulch, Nevada, and Lady Theobald of Slowbridge:
"You don't look like an English girl," remarked her ladyship.

Octavia smiled again. ... "I suppose I ought to be sorry for that," she observed. "I dare say I shall be in time -- when I have been longer away from Nevada."

"I must confess," admitted her ladyship, and evidently without the least regret or embarrassment, "I must confess that I don't know where Nevada is."

"It isn't in Europe," replied Octavia, with a soft, light laugh. "You know that, don't you?" [35]
Later, Lady Theobald takes note of the abundance of jewelry Miss Octavia wears:
"You are a very fortunate girl to own such jewels," she said, glancing critically at the diamonds in her ears; "but if you take my advice, my dear, you will put them away, and leave them until you are a married woman. It is not customary, on this side of the water, for young girls to wear such things -- particularly on ordinary occasions. People will think you are odd."

"It is not exactly customary in America," replied Octavia, with her undisturbed smile. "There are not many girls who have such things. Perhaps they would wear them if they had them. I don't care a very great deal about them, but I mean to wear them."

Lady Theobald departed in a dudgeon [39].
Miss Belinda remonstrates mildly with her niece.
But Octavia did not appear overwhelmed by the existence of the standards in question. She turned to the window again.

"Well, anyway," she said, "I think it was pretty cool in her to order me to take off my diamonds, and save them until I was married. How does she know whether I mean to be married, or not? I don't know that I care about it" [40-41].
Octavia is more of a Huck Finn than a Gwendolyn or a Cecily, but Lady Theobald is very much a Lady Bracknell-wannabe. Burnett, though born in England, moved with her family to the US at the age of 16, and spent most of the rest of her life there, with only occasional residence in England. She has a nice touch with the clashing provincialisms of America and Britain, and though A Fair Barbarian drags a bit towards the end -- Burnett seems bored with the story -- she wraps it up neatly enough, with some small surprises.

This was the first book I've read by Burnett with an adult protagonist, and it's a hoot. She's best-known now for her "children's" books Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, which in their day were read and loved by adults as much as children. I think A Fair Barbarian would make a great film. There's a 1917 silent version, but someone today with the right feeling for a comedy of manners could make something very entertaining out of it. It's quite different in its tone and attitudes than I expected from 19th-century fiction, just as Jane Austen's novels shook me out of my preconceptions about what an English spinster would write about 70 years earlier.

Which brings me to something that kept occurring to me as I read Pride and Prejudice last night. The writing drips irony, and some fairly intense sarcasm. Do most Austen fans notice it? After re-watching Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's very fine and successful Sense and Sensibility a month ago, which missed or left out the irony too, I'm inclined to doubt it. As Jane Eyre is often mistaken for a proto-Gothic romance novel ("Always to be a governess and always in love," Virginia Woolf sneered in the 1920s), so Austen's novels seem to be thought of as simple proto-Harlequin romances.

For example, though Austen accepted her society's ideas about class and breeding, she knew very well that a title and thousands of pounds did not automatically make a good person. The Bennet parents in Pride and Prejudice are human failures in their different ways, but there is also the affectionate but insincere Miss Bingley, and even more there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who despite her august station is not really different from the empty-headed Mrs. Bennet. I've been wondering what Miss Austen would have thought of the great working-class critic Raymond Williams's impression of his class 'superiors' at Cambridge:

The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunately enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people.
*I'm referring to chapters in P&P rather than page numbers because there are so many editions of Austen's novels, and besides, the chapters are short enough to make it fairly easy to find a passage. I quote A Fair Barbarian from a 1995 facsimile reprint, by the University of Idaho Press, of the 1880 original, but it can also be found online.