Those Women !

 

 

A lot has been said and written about Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton, as no other character has been able to make vibrate the hearts of so many readers, all I dare say, to such an extent like them.These two men have often been considered quite alike, and not without reasons, in fact, I have to say that more than once, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to wink at Austen’s masterpiece in North and South. However, if we have motives to say that the two male protagonists follow quite the same pattern in the narration, the same cannot be affirmed for their wives-to-be, as they feel and act differently. Once overcome the question of prejudices according to the different settings and situations of the novels, Margaret and Elizabeth will eventually marry their chosen partners, of course, but only when we analyze closely those matches, we do understand how different the nature of the two heroines is.

I have already dealt with Miss Bennet in other posts, but I want to reiterate my interpretation having here the chance to make a comparison between characters.
Let’s start. Why does Elizabeth marry Darcy? For love? Maybe. For money? To be sure. Of course you’ll be turning up your nose at this point howling sacrilege and you would feel like reminding me the touching, explanatory letter that Darcy writes to Lizzy after he had been rejected, as the seed from which the flower of their love will grow and blossom and you would be right, but it is a seed and a very small one if compared to the sight of Pemberley. While visiting the grand house of the man she had so proudly refused, Miss Bennet is all of a sudden haunted by a thought, a fastidious fly that buzzes in her head :”I could have been mistress of all this“. That buzz does not seem to be willing to leave her. In fact, from that moment on, that hateful, disdainful, haughty, proud Mr Darcy will magically appear to her under a different, benign light and Miss Bennet will consent to be more yielding and ready to flirt. Would you call it love? Sort of.  But please, don’t get me wrong, I have the highest regard and even envy for those who manage to marry so well, I just wanted to remark that marrying Darcy with his 10.000 a year and half of Derbyshire, Elizabeth improves her station a lot and love must have found its way eventually, I am sure. The path was smooth after all.

When Margaret reunites to Mr Thornton, the latter is no longer a catch, he has lost everything (but his scowl) . Besides, Margaret in the meanwhile has become rich and has inherited Mr Thorton’s mill and house too, thus making him her insolvent tenant. This downfall reminds me of Jane Eyre’s pattern. Thornton like Mr Rochester must face the humiliation of defeat and loss. When  Margaret and Jane come to their rescue, they will do it as independent women, as even Charlotte Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections as well. They embody somehow a new prototype of woman, a modern character who is allowed to choose freely rather than hope to be chosen to secure status or reputation.Of course, in times when still the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was through marriage, an inheritance was that stroke of luck that loosed her laces and set her free. Free to marry even a man even in reduced cinrumstances like Mr Thorton that, at the time being, will have nothing to offer her but his deepest love and……..his mother’s resentment.

 

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The Loss of Innocence

If one the typical characters of Jane Austen’s novels were to leave for any reason
the pampered life of a good, refined but secluded society made of balls, laces,
tittle-tattle, great expectations and shattered dreams to face the world outside,
well, very likely we would be reading one of the novels written by Elizabeth
Gaskell. Margaret Hale, the protagonist of North and South, could be in any way one
of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters : remarkably beautiful, intelligent, well
educated, young and therefore, ready to marry, but the pursue of a good match is
not the central theme here. Her perfect world will be smashed by her father’s sudden
decision to quit the church and move where the “dark satanic mills” have utterly
changed the landscape and the heart of people: the North. In Jane Austen’s books the
North has always been the remote place where the regiment was dislocated and
nothing more. There is never a hint about the profound changes the industrial
revolution was bringing about in the country. The arrival in the Northern town of
Milton will be felt by Margaret and her family as if they had been sunk into a hell
made of noise, dirt and machines. The verdant, peaceful, aristocratic South is only
a painful memory of the heaven they fear to have lost forever.

In the hell of Milton the Thorntons are the most distinguished family, and Mr Thornton is another Mr Darcy, a Darcy of the North, of course: a mill owner whose position has not been secured by breed, but by hard discipline and work .The educated but poor Margaret Hale and the rich but unrefined Mr Thornton are destined to follow the same love pattern of Pride and Prejudice: prejudice and misunderstanding at first, development of affection on both sides with a different degree of awareness, rejected proposal, smoothing of characters to a deserved happy ending. However, the context the two act, is harsher and more tragic than that of Pride and Prejudice. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s world there is pain, desolation, the desperate struggle to survive of the emerging, exploited classes working in mills and the brutal industrial plans of their masters. It is the real world which, nevertheless, allows the growth of genuine, sincere bonds and affections even among members of different classes.There is no time for frivolous deception and seemingly pointless conversation here, there is understanding and mutual support.

Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton share that scowl which actually hides a surprisingly sensitive nature, but Mr Thornton has deeper comprehension of people and himself. If we compare the two proposal scenes, for instance, Mr Darcy has no doubt he will be accepted. He is full of himself, after all, he knows who he is and what a good catch he would be for any girl. Elizabeth’s refusal takes him by surprise. Mr Thornton proposes not only because he is sincerely in love with Margaret, but because he feels bound in honour as Margaret’s coming to his rescue, while he was facing an angry mob, had been generally interpreted as a manifestation of her feelings for him. He knowns she doesn’t love him, that she thinks he is not good enough for her and that he won’t be accepted, even if she is in reduced circumstances. Despite her refusal, he will continue to offer his discreet support to her family in the many times of need.

Margaret’s love for Mr Thornton will grow, despite her initial prejudices, along with the understanding not only of the man but also of the dynamics of that part of the country he embodies. When  Margaret, after a great deal of tragedy, visits the house she was born and bred in the South, the happy and enchanted place of her thoughtless years,  she’ll be unable to revive those emotions that, however, are still vivid in her mind. That heaven like place does not exist any longer, because she’s deeply changed. Life had thrown her into the Blakean world of experience of the North and Helstone represents for her now that innocence she has painfully lost forever.

 

A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

Faultess Despite Many Faults

I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, was Jane Austen’s famous comment about the main character of her novel, Emma. I have to say that this remark fitted pretty well my first reading of the book.  It was more than twenty years ago now and still I can remember how I was annoyed by her match making efforts and all that never-ending tittle-tattle about it. When I finished it, I quickly put it back in the library, never tempted to touch it again, till recently, my good blog friend Chris (Calmgrove) posted not one, but three enthusiastic reviews on the book one after another. Such genuine display of admiration and praise convinced me eventually to give the novel another try. Hence; I would rephrase the incipit  as follows:“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” the very first time you are acquainted with her, but you will change your opinion as soon as you will give her/yourself another chance.

Therefore; I would like to focus my attention on the main character here, as this time I couldn’t but notice some features in the making of this heroine, which I had previously missed, but that now made me better appreciate the exquisite wonder of Jane Austen’s craft even in this novel. I shall start by saying that Emma is very different from almost all the other female characters of Jane Austen’s world, who are mostly concerned in one way or another with one issue only: marriage. In this story there are not the threatening shades of a Mr Collins or a Mr William Elliot ready to dispossess the lady in question of her inheritance as soon as her father ceases to be, thus making marriage a necessity. There is no such danger at Hartfield, as Emma is the mistress of the house, the heiress with a fortune of 30.000 pounds. Furthemore she is” handsome, clever, with a happy disposition” with some little faults, by the way: ” the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself“. However, how can it be that such a young woman at the age of 21 still knows nothing about love? As far as we know, she has never been the protagonist a love reverie typical of her age but rather she prefers to fantasize on other people’s chance of making a match, pretending to be their Cupid, as if they were her dolls in Highbury playground. To her friend Harriet Emma confesses, that she will never marry and she is not afraid of being considered an old maid like Miss Bates, she will never be like her, because she is rich, showing that she is well aware of her social status and what is due to her.

So, if on the one hand we may say that she doesn’t need to marry, on the other we wouldn’t be too far from the truth if we added that she can’t as well, or better she feels she can’t. She has been looking after her old father since her elder sister’s marriage and he depends upon her. It is interesting here the parallelism with old maid Miss Bates who, just like her, is in charge of her mother, but without the comfort money can give. By the way, Mr Woodhouse is a hypochondriac “ easily depressed…hating change of any kind“, particularly any change in the vast, amazing world of human experience, whether it may be a short trip to Box Hill, for example, or an attachment to a man, especially if it regards her daughter. Emma is quite provincial, indeed. She has never travelled or seen the seaside as she says to her nephews, she has never been to London where her sister lives, she has never experience the feeling of love. When, eventually, she imagines herself intrigued by Mr Churchill, Mrs Weston’s step-son, who is so much talked of in the small circle of Highbury even before being introduced to everybody, she confesses to herself that she doesn’t want to fall to the temptation of even thinking about him. Hence; somehow Mr Woodhouse manages to keep her at the pubertal stage of her life.

Having lost her mother at a too young an age and having been in charge of her father for some years, the two figures who have guided her during her adolescence are Miss Taylor, her governess and Mr Knightley, her brother-in-law 16 years older than Emma. As surrogate father and mother, they are often engaged on parental like discussions on Emma’s education as they  seem to have different points of view about it. The proof that she needs guidance can be seen soon after the loss of one of these two figures, that is, when Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. At first Emma tries to replace her company with Harriet Smith, but she is socially not her equal and too young to have any influence on her at all, then she starts to misbehave under the influence of young Frank Churchill. Mr Knightley often tries to correct her lecturing and scolding her, but he understands that his role, as it has been till then, cannot fit him any longer, as, despite his sharp insight and the goodness of his advice, his reasons are not entirely honest as he has found himself in love with Emma and  jealous of Frank Churchill . That is why Austen gives him  the task to guide her from adolescence to womanhood but no longer as a brother or friend but as a husband and what a husband, since Donwell Abbey, his estate, includes most of the property in Highbury. Ah, Lucky Emma!

 

 

 

Do you really believe Miss Elizabeth Bennet was in love with Mr Darcy? Noooooo.

pride 1

First of all, I would like to start thanking Miss Jane Austen for having conceived the second greatest girlish fantasy soon after Prince Charming: Mr Darcy. But, my dear ladies, it’s time to say it clearly: in the real world Mr Darcy does NOT exist. It’s a sad truth, I admit, but we have to learn to face this harsh reality. Therefore, I would like to study well the character of the lucky one who has succeeded in winning his heart, at least in the fictional world, and marrying for love: Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

pride 4Why her? What is that something that has bewitched Mr Fabulous, a handsome, elegant, generous, trustworthy man with an income of 10 thousand pounds a year? Because, as far as we know, Elizabeth is pretty, but not that pretty, her sister Jane is far more attractive than her, furthermore, she doesn’t seem to possess the necessary accomplishments that a girl required: she cannot draw, she doesn’t speak any languages, well, actually, she plays and sings but “tolerably well“. Last but not least, Lizzy has an embarrassing family that cannot provide her with a decent dowry in order to turn her into a desirable catch, as “last chance man” Mr Collins had predicted.

pride 2So what? This Elizabeth Bennet seems to me a girl just like many others, perhaps a bit more intelligent and witty, that is all. Differently from the other ladies she doesn’t seem to be beguiled by Mr Darcy’s superior rank and wealth. Really? In my opinion she just played hard to get, this is the point. Men like this game, especially if they are convinced to win, but they eventually end up caught in the lady’s trap. Darcy is just one of them. Elizabeth says she is determined to marry for love and not for money, this is commendable, yet I am not persuaded.

pride 5When does she exactly realize that she is in love with Mr Darcy? After having read his explanatory letter? Or when she knows that he had secretly rescued the whole family from disgrace? When? Actually, I have the answer: in a trip to Derbyshire. Elizabeth and her uncle and aunt stop to visit Mr Darcy’s “hut”: Pemberley. Elizabeth seems a kind of unwilling to go, because she is afraid of meeting the man, I know, but when she sees this sort of Buckingham Palace surrounded by woods, ponds, streams she realizes something which I wouldn’t call love, exactly: “ I could have been mistress of all this” she muses sighing. When Mr Darcy unexpectedly shows up after a while, we will see a complete different Miss Bennet: more yielding and ready to flirt. Just like any other girl.

The “I will save you” syndrome

nurse_02

In the mid-nineteenth century, the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was still through marriage. Girls were carefully brought up to that purpose and if they wanted to marry well, they needed to have many cards in their sleeves in order to reach the goal: beauty, social status, connections, fortune and many “accomplishments” as Caroline Bingley elucidated to Elizabeth Bennet :

quotation-marksA(n accomplished) woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved “.

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

Mr Darcy  will also add to the list :

quotation-marks All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

No wonder Charlotte Bronte‘s best known character, Jane Eyre, has often been considered as a feminist forerunner, because she defies all those cultural standards. Plain, reserved, she has neither connections, nor fortune to offer but her determination and dignity. She has been brought up to rely on herself only and not on a male figure. In fact, she refuses matrimony twice (Mr Rochester’s first attempt and John Reeves) or she feels mortified when Mr Rochester wants to lavish her with expensive gifts in occasion of the imminent wedding:

quotation-marks the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.”

(Jane Eyre  Chapter XXIV)

But what kind of man in Mr Rochester? If Jane cannot be considered a Cinderella type, certainly Edward Rochester is no Prince Charming . He is rude, arrogant, twice her age, sometimes violent and not even particularly handsome as Jane will notice the first time they meet:

quotation-marksmiddle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young , I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked..”
 
(Jane Eyre Chapter XII)
 
Once he is back at Thornfield, he starts toying with Jane’s feeling, he tests and teases her encouraging our heroine to believe he is going to marry a woman of his rank more deserving than her: beautiful Blanche Ingram. He is a liar: he deliberately omits his married status. He is selfish: because he considers bigamy the only reasonable option to ensure HIS happiness. He is definitely unreliable but at the same time he is warm, seductive, passionate,  well….. the kind of man women like, even if we profess the opposite. Women never fall head over heels for the John Reeves of the Edgar lintons that people the real world. We like the fire and inevitably we get burnt. But this suicidal attraction for dangerous men is generated by an impulse or better by a syndrome – the “I will save you syndrome” – which affects each of us with no exception, Charlotte Bronte included. What does it mean? We deliberately fall in the trap of this kind of men, because we are convinced we are good enough to change them and turn them into “better” persons, weakening their strongest and most dangerous drives. That is: we are seduced by the Heathcliff type only to turn him into a more controllable Edgar Linton type, a living oxymoron. We already know, it is impossible, in fact, Catherine Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights,  who had already tried to make this experiment, dies tragically before both of them. Charlotte Bronte’s malice is, therefore, clear: she had created a super macho man, one of the strongest male characters of the literature of the age, only to humiliate and destroy him both physically and psychically, without even hiding a certain sadism. So, while he tragically sinks among the ruins of Thornfield, Charlotte  Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections so when she finally makes her homecoming as an independent woman, Mr Rochester and Jane are even. And now that he has become weak and needy because of his blindness (even a little bit too pathetic), she will save him, marrying him and nursing him for the rest of her life. Every woman’s desire…….bah! Only at the end of the novel Charlotte Bronte seems to have mercy upon Mr Rochester (or maybe Jane), making him partially regain his sight:
 quotation-marksHe had the advice of an eminent oculist; and he eventually recovered the sight of that one eye.  He cannot now see very distinctly: he cannot read or write much; but he can find his way without being led by the hand: the sky is no longer a blank to him—the earth no longer a void.  When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black.  On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.
(Jane Eyre   Chapter  XXXVIII)
Can this be considered a feminist victory? I really don’t think so.