Like many daydreamers, I am an avid Jane Austin fan. I reserve a romantically inclined, soft-hearted part of my brain for all such sickly happy-ever-afters. Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book, I read it religiously at least twice a year and even though I know the dialogue by rote, I still agonise over whether the Darcy/Bennett union will take place as if it were the first time I’d read the story. But, like happens in any long standing relationship, the little things that I once found endearing in both character and setting often causes my mood to degenerate.
At first, the romance of the Regency stories is inescapable. It is easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of every beautiful, available woman waiting for Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet. You feel their despair at being overlooked in favour of another bride of good fortune and boo in the face every cad who treats them ill. You marvel at the politeness of society and the strict rules governing social interaction and wonder how any couple ever came together amongst all that bowing and scraping.
Upon first reading novels which reflect on nineteenth century upper class living, you barely feel the injustice on the well educated, accomplished women as you are well aware of how history changed lives for the better, but if you remove the sentiment of these stories and regard them as an observation of society’s treatment of women at the time, you may end up, as I do, irrationally angry for your female ancestors.
There’s no doubt that men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were considered superior to women, no matter what class they came from. Now, ordinarily, I would never spare an ounce of sorrow for members of the upper classes or aristocracy. The phrase ‘poor little rich girl’ seems apt here, however, I do feel a certain amount of empathy for those marginal few for whom opportunity should have been rife yet was cruelly withheld because of their female sub-status. In most romance novels of this genre, the heroine’s sole purpose in life is to secure a husband, not just any husband though, one with a good fortune and respectable connections. He must be a good match for her own situation in life, and she for his. She will have been groomed for this purpose her entire life; every lesson in etiquette, deportment and feminine wiles has been to catch the eye of an eligible bachelor and reel him in, after all, she wasn’t likely to inherit the family silver and her parents needed to marry her off before she got too old.
Every time a woman ventured into society she entered a highly judgemental beauty parade, (consider a real life version of Tinder where you hurriedly sweep past or ignore those you consider below your notice). People consciously graded her looks, her air, her manners and most importantly, her family connections. Any controversy in that area was a blot on her own character and could not be overlooked. If you were lucky enough to find a ‘match’, you were then subject to what I have come to view as the most ridiculous set of social manners in history.
Firstly, you were not allowed to wander over and speak to him, you had to be introduced. To make it fair, men also had to be introduced to ladies before they could approach them so you had to hope there was a mutual friend in the room or you might spend years making doe-eyes at each other, gagged by social etiquette. After the introduction was made, there was no stopping you. You could speak to them in a polite, restrained manner, at any number of social gatherings. Austen tells us of dinner parties, balls, day trips and house calls for tea. This all sounds wonderful except they were never private. All conversation and actions would be watched, scrutinised for signs of ‘attachment’ and probably gossiped about for days after.
It was not acceptable for any single young woman to be in male company unchaperoned, never were a courting couple left alone. You couldn’t sit up talking into the wee hours to get to know each other (remember the chaperone?) and there were no telephones for any secret, late night conversations. The only form of contact anyone had away from Granny Prude and her teapot was letter writing. This would be perfect as a ‘get to know you’ exercise except that women were not allowed to write to a man unless they were engaged. Completely unheard of. What a hussy that would make them.
It was also considered uncouth for a female to show overt signs of emerging affections in case the male didn’t return them. Since her manners and actions were monitored by an ever-present audience, her beau would have to rely on her coy looks and small gestures to be sure of her heart. Hands up any man who could interpret such faint signals now? Anyone? It seems that nobody ever declared their feelings until one or the other were desperately in love, although how they ever got there is beyond me. You have to wonder how any budding relationship ever went further than a howdydoo. I can’t imagine any circumstance where husband and wife would truly know each other before they walked down the aisle.
As I said before, I rarely spare any sorrow for the problems of the upper classes or aristocracy but I have formed an opinion that women in these circumstances were not created equal and perhaps should be pitied. Such a lot seemed to ride on their manners and countenance being what they should just to secure a position in life as a wife. It saddens me that this is all they aspired to. They didn’t work; if you were of a lower class you would be able to take a position as a governess or school mistress (until you were married). They didn’t go to any of the excellent male only schools or universities that such wealth would make possible nowadays, instead, they were educated (albeit to a high standard) at home with a lean towards subjects suitable for females. Their measure of success in life was whether their manner was meek enough and their temper even enough to secure a husband worth having. If they married above their position in life they were considered to have been successful and whilst I fully appreciate that the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries are merely a window into history, the heroines that I once loved to read have become an irritation to me because of their single field of vision. Their constant agonising over whether Mr so and so loves them, whether their countenance reveals too much of their true feelings or whether the object of their affection would engage another. I wonder how I would cope with having nothing to occupy me but new hats, dresses and stiff, dutiful visits to acquaintances.
Jane Austen’s novels often feature a female character who teeters on the rebellious edge, they often recognise the absurdity of people and circumstances around them but do not go as far as to declare them unjust or ridiculous. The world hadn’t arrived at that conclusion when the novels were published. As a result, the silliness of the cast often raises my blood pressure. They remind me of the giggling girls at school for whom I reserved a special laser beam of contempt and it pains me to think that entire generations behaved like this as the norm.
After the effect these victims of circumstance have on my inner-feminist, you’d think I would never pick up another Austen or Bronte novel in my life, but you’d be wrong. Once my Justice Barometer has swung from Suffragette back to Knight in Shining Armour, I’ll be curling up in my favourite chair with Elizabeth Bennett, questioning Mr Wickham’s morals and observing the ridiculousness of Regency period manners all over again.