A desperate housewife

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Moll, Pamela, Clarissa, Jane, Elizabeth, Fanny, Catherine, Mary…………well, after having followed all the fortunes and misfortunes of these heroines, one thing is for certain: this marriage business was tiring and frustrating for both the girls and their mothers. Yes, their mothers. These ladies stood between their husbands’ will and their daughters’ whims and tried ,as much as they could, to preserve the precarious emotional balance of their families. Girls could be easily forced to yielding, but what happened if desperation led one of them to choose for the most dreaded resolution: elopement, without the blessing of matrimony? The family was simply ruined. And what could happen if you had five girls to marry and you were under threat of the most chauvinist will which entailed your house, estate, everything you own to the male line? Distressed? Strained? Anxious? I guess so. This is exactly what Mrs Bennet must have felt for a long part of her fictional life, her nerves are in fact very often mentioned in the novel. Luckily she is married to a weak, good-natured husband that allows her to move freely in the attempt of avoiding the possible disgrace embodied by Mr Collins, the future heir. On this purpose she will use every weapon, break every moral rule that stands between her and the target. She lets her younger daughters enjoy the pleasures of society even if the eldest are not married yet, she plans to let Jane stay the night at Netherfield, Mr Bingley’s grand house, sending her on horseback because it’s about to rain, the couples of lovers are always left alone so as to facilitate intimacy and many others more. Not everything worked well, if we consider Lydia’s affair, but at the end of the novel, three of the five girls will end up married and even if one day Mr Bennet died and she had to leave her house, I’m pretty sure Mr Darcy would give her a nice apartment at Pemberley. Maybe.

The Importance of Being a Fool

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“That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all” stated Isaac Asimov in his  “Guide to Shakespeare”. Shakesperian Fools were not only jesters or clowns, but they were clever peasants or commoners who commented events and could speak those truth nobody dared to say. This was a priviledge that only Fools had. Hamlet knew it, in fact his exhibited “antic disposition” allowed him to move more freely in the court of Denmark and confound his uncle and court to find evidence of the truth. In King Lear the Fool is free to ridicule the King’s actions without shocking the audience. He could do it, he was a Fool. Comedians are actually like modern Fools. Just like their forefathers, they seem to have the passport for those lands, forbidden to anyboby else, where the unacceptable is acceped and the unspeakable is spoken. But sometimes they are more than this. Few days ago Roberto Benigni, our most poular comedian, was on tv with a show on the Italian Constittution which he defined  “the most beautiful in the world”. In the first part he acted like a Fool: as expected he started with some disrespectful jokes against Berlusconi in particular and all the politicians in general, nothing new actually, but after a while the fool had turned into the poet who took us by our hands into the meaning and essence of the Italian Constitution article after article, pointing out its innovations, balance and beauty: “the most beautiful in the world ” he kept on saying trying to work on our weak national pride and ………. it worked, because 13 million people followed the show from the beginning to the end without having the impulse of zapping somewhere else. This is just because, Benigni, the fool, had succeeded in making us feel aware and proud of what we did and what we are despite our many defects. Now the question is, shouldn’t be this also someone else’s task?  Are fools those who have to define the moral code of a modern country?

Charlotte

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But if you couldn’t rely on Moll Flanders’s beauty and many “talents”, if your family couldn’t provide you with a considerable dowry, if your time were running by and you would find yourself very close to the scary age of thirty still unmarried, what was the only opportunity left to a girl in the secluded neighborhood of Jane Austen‘s English countryside? Every girl’s nightmare: odious, hypocritical, presumptuous, obsequious Mr Collins. That was the only answer to that girl’s prayers. Charlotte Lucas , Elisabeth Bennet‘s best friend, knows that the man may be her last chance of marrying and accepts Mr Collins’s proposal even if she is well aware that she is his second or even third choice. But she doesn’t care. She is not looking for love and passion, she professes hersel unromantic in fact, but  for that safe place in society that only matrimony can guarantee. She firmly believes that “marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and that “it ‘s better to know as little as possible” of the future partner. Astonishing words, but yet we don’t have to be deceived because Charlotte is neither cold nor desperate. She is an intelligent, sensible but also sensitive woman who is well aware that reason, rather than emotions, will ensure her a place in that society. Consequently she is the only one who is not deceived by Mr Wickham’s charms or believes that Jane should do more to win Mr Bingley’s affection. She knows the rules of love, but she also knows that love is not her game. Furthemore she is also well aware that she has just a few cards left to play in the other game: the pursuit of a husband. Therefore before her time is over she will finally score her goal: Mr Collins.

Moll

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Is there anybody out there who is “ afraid of dying an old maid” just like Charlotte Lucas? I’m sure just a few, and surely because they have missed the epic adventures of the four girls from Manhattan in Sex and the City. They somehow have succeeded in increasing women’s confidence turning spinsterhood into singlehood, that is the pride, rather than the shame, of choosing an autonoumous taboo free life where men are not necessarily the only means of having a comfortable life. Moll Flanders had some modern traits in common with those girls: resolute, clever, shrewd, uninhibited, aware of her beauty and determined to use it well, but in the eighteenth century all that was not enough without a recognized position in society or a husband. For what concerns her social rank  Molly started very low as she was born in prison and that’s why when she was old enough she needed to turn herself into a husband hunter. She used all her charms and tricks on that purpose, because, as she said, beauty was not enough to secure a good match. She was well aware that a rich woman even if ugly would have had been free to choose the husband she wanted, meanwhile beauty alone could have certainly attracted some rich men but neither matrimony nor respectability. So in order to secure her own survival in such a society she needed a man to support her and that’s why married five times, even her brother. Marriage provided women with status, respectability, comforts; in one word they wanted protection and if a Mr Big came along with it, well, so much the better.

The novel recipe

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As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their life. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is after having done or seen much. They just experimented novel writing. So let’s figure out, one day Daniel Defoe took ink and paper and, while sipping a nice cup of tea, set to work and……..nothing, blank. Certainly, he had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but writing novels was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather creating an organic structure where his characters could move and interact for many pages. There was no psychoanalysis to help him, so the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient he was very lucky, because he was witness of an age of great changes where the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeous hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe. He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism:a success. But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in a smaller space: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside the family circle and their connections. Furthemore they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour. When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy,Gentleman, that is his flux of thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of la durée, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was not fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalists could give him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a rather primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel placing the preface is in the third chapter for example, then filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings,dashes etc. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipes   work without another ingredient, the most important one: “the genious touch”.