This morning I woke up with the musical theme from Chariots of Fire stuck in my head. The title is a Russian doll of meaning, tracing back to the Old Testament via William Blake. It’s a powerful story, and for a moment I have contemplated whether my subconscious was trying to tell me something. Surely, as a Christian girl, I should dedicate a reflection about role models to Eric Liddle rather than Jane Austen! There I sat with my tea, pondering. And I decided that, this time, I’m not going to talk about God.
Last year, I’ve read a book by Edward Neill titled “The Politics of Jane Austen”. It was an interesting book driving a liberal agenda against the two main traditional views of Jane Austen’s views, namely the historicist one that says “Of course she was a bit of a Tory, she lived in a bit of a Tory age” (the lucky girl, I love David Cameron but truly why do I get him when she got Pitt the Younger?) and the traditional view that “She was a bit of a Tory because she was a bit of a Tory, full stop”. I’ve found it fascinating but a bit patronising. It seems to move from the premise that you can’t have some radical ideas while simultaneously believe in a society made in the image of a book by Roger Scruton.
The most radical idea in the novels is probably love as the basis of marriage. That’s where the agency of her characters is really shown. Even in Charlotte Lucas, who arguably is meant to contrast Elizabeth Bennett as the one who plays by the rules and settles for less than she deserves because she really dislikes the very thought of Collins. People think of it as having no choice in her situation (and the dialogue when she brings the news to Lizzie in the Joe Wright’s adaptation just reinforces it), but the author who penned her never married so doesn’t she, really?
The spinsterhood of Jane Austen is a theme that has occupied our imagination for a really long time, and it’s the focus of the mainly fictional biopic “Becoming Jane”.
How historically accurate it really is we will never tell, because of the lack of sources about what really happened, but I love the character they created.
Jane is a young woman who knows her value, but she was humble enough to look past Lefroy’s arrogant snobbism from their first meeting (I believe he was being a bit of a peacock about being a town’s type and didn’t really believe his own harsh criticism of her writing anyway) and learn from him. In return, he helped her because he believed in her and valued her. I have grown up with the message that I have to really prove myself as a woman and always took criticism at heart, as if my achievements or lack of thereof were what gives me value, or detract from it. My very own reactions in my late teens and early twenties (the film came out when I was 18) have been very similar. It would make me mad to be told what to do by a man, and yet it appears that men are those who take her aspiration the most seriously. Especially Lefroy, who will be the one arranging for her to meet Ann Radcliffe in the film. I had never realised how much I longed for a partner that supports me until I’ve found one that didn’t, that same year.
She is also someone who chose the painful right thing to do over her own happiness. I wouldn’t have faced that choice until many years later, and it stayed with me how loving someone sometimes means letting them go. It’s a very romantic view, and some people may find it uncomfortable that we felt the need to add this tragic background to what could have easily been just a choice based on what she wanted, but it directed my own coming of age so I find it beautiful.
The film doesn’t go much into her politics, except maybe by showing how strongly she believes a woman can support herself without a husband, and that’s preferable to marrying without affection, but I believe some of the romanticism in her ways is tinted of that conservatism of her age that we have lost. The sense of duty towards family and neighbour, a respect for tradition with an eye to progress once we need to meet the challenges of a changing world, the acknowledgment that we all have a role to play in the grand scheme of things and it goes beyond what our individual passions incline us to, and a deep understanding of the matters of the heart behind the surface of propriety.
I like to imagine Jane as someone who might have admired Pope a little more than it was proper, reading Eloisa to Abelard savouring the depths of such great love. Dreaming of experiencing it herself and, suddenly, finding herself with emotions she can’t explain, tentatively following them like light steps on the shore, and further and further away from the beach, until the current pushes her away, into the open sea.
Someone like me, I suppose.