Thursday, February 27, 2014

Loving "Bad Jane": Pride and Prejudice and the Too-Good Sister/Daughter/Mother

"Got a light, big boy?"
[Based on C.E. Brock's Bingley and Sandy from Grease]
The Derbyshire Writers' Guild Tea Room features a rather intense thread examining the rationale behind "bad Jane" characters in Pride and Prejudice fan fiction.

That so many writers and readers alike enjoy a "bad Jane" does not surprise me, nor does the dynamic discussion about Jane's relative merits. This hints at a key reason why Austen's Pride and Prejudice remains her most popular and successful novel — the underlying archetypes speak deeply to us, and they communicate successfully. The real mystery is how a single woman could write out a comprehensive ancient mythos using so many archetypes in sync and with such clarity that most readers don't see them yet enjoy the story they tell.

It's important to understand that P&P is not about a single character. It's an ensemble, a system that works well, each of its different components serving a critical purpose.

The novel itself mirrors a portion of the women's mythos — the story we tell each other about what being an adult woman requires, how to become one successfully as we move from maiden to wife/mother. P&P is a women's bildungsroman, in other words.

While most readers follow the Elizabeth-and-Darcy storyline most closely, the other components tell us very deep things about womanhood in an economy of words.

The five daughters are not independent; they are each of them an extension of the uber-mother, telling us what is successful as mother and daughter alike. Each daughter represents a specific model of emerging womanhood, from which we are to learn.

1) Jane — The too-good sister/daughter/mother — In which we see complete investment of the mother and minor investment of the father; this child has learned complete control over herself.

2) Elizabeth — The good-enough sister/daughter/mother — Exemplifies more paternal investment and a more hands-off approach on the part of the mother.

3) Mary — The intellectual abandoned sister/daughter/mother — Parents utterly fail this child, who strives to replace the knowledge and wisdom of parents but without any guidance.

4) Kitty — The incurious abandoned sister/daughter/mother — Again, parents utterly fail this child, but she cannot even see her way to replace missing knowledge and wisdom.

5) Lydia — The animalistic sister/daughter/mother — Father fails grossly, while mother identifies too closely with this child, indulging all the animal urges without restraint.

Each of these models have varying degrees of attachment to their parents. These variations teach us something about the role of parents in their daughters' lives and their respective likely outcomes.

We've seen these models before. They appear again and again in fairy and folk tales, once told by mothers and grandmothers to their daughters in front of the hearth. They were unconscious guides to help guide pre-literate people.