Reading Spring’s latest post today reminded me of my love/hate relationship with Jane Austen and her body of work. Like just about every reasonably educated English speaker, I’m familiar with her most famous works; I understand the references to Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse. I appreciate the stories of romantic tension and the critiques of the social mores of the early 19th century. I enjoyed the movie adaptations when one of my neighbors at Franklin invited all of us to her room for a Jane Austen movie night.
However, no matter how hard I try, I cannot get through an Austen novel. I’ve tried to start Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice a few times each, and every time I read a couple chapters and then give up. It might be the page-long sentences and lack of paragraph breaks. It might be the pages upon pages of dialogue that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. It might also be that, in all of my literary studies, I concentrated mostly on works from the 20th century and beyond.
But there’s also something about Austen’s novels that I can’t quite penetrate, that I can’t quite relate to like I’m told that, as an English-speaking heterosexual woman, I should. I don’t pine for the old days of codified chivalry and gentility to a fault. As much as I can see the tension between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy that people rave about, it’s not the kind of sexual tension I’ve experienced (and enjoyed) in my own life. I like my tension a bit more, should I say, explicitly sexual and less regulated by social mores.
At the same time, I like love stories to the point of being a total sap. I religiously read the weekly installments of On the Couch on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s website. I cheer on my friends when they start new romances and interrogate them when they return. (You know who you are ;)) I stop just short of squealing when my classmates tell me about celebrating the 25th anniversary of a first date or the latest sweet thing someone’s boyfriend/fiance/husband has done.
And more than anything, I’ve never understood what the big deal was about Mr. Darcy. Yes, he saves the Bennett family’s reputation and breaks through his steely exterior to admit his feelings for Elizabeth, but I’ve never pined for a man like him. I admire the character, but I don’t see the appeal in the archetype. I prefer the more amorphous modern romantic landscape, in which I can out-flirt my guy of the moment, acknowledge the more sexual part sexual tension and choose my partners based on something more personal than familial status and financial well-being. I even appreciate the fact that things like the non-relationship model that has become my unintentional (and frustrating) specialty can exist.
I like romance, but I love men more. (In fact, one of the big reasons I claim the feminist label is for this very reason, but more on that later.) I actually like the messiness that comes with meeting and falling for a person who is just as interesting, nervous and complex as I am. Idealized people intimidate me because I know I can’t live up to them. I’m one of those people that likes to discuss sex, politics and religion on a first date (all of those topics you’re not supposed to bring up in polite society) to gauge his opinions and disarm him of any packaged lines he may have.
Therefore, I enjoy literature that shows a less regulated and more raw picture of romantic relationships more than the classic works of Jane Austen. Maybe one day I’ll make my way through one of her novels, but until then I’ll be content with this world that lets me be myself (for the most part) and where my strategy has at least gotten me a second date once or twice. 😉