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.

P&P doesn't look like The Three Bears, but we are familiar with Too-Big-Too-Small-Just-Right; the five daughters remind us that one can be Too-Big (as in too-good Jane) and Too-Small (as in too-bad Lydia), and we should strive for Just-Right.

We've also seen dissent and envy between sisters before, a la Cinderella; in the same story, we also saw the distant father and what havoc a missing father can wreak on a girl's life. Only the miracle of a fairy godmother mediating the effects of the bad-mother-missing-father could ensure Cinderella attained her role. In P&P, the fairy godparents are the Gardiners, who intervene at the right times when the bad-mother/missing-father fail.

What is it, then, about Jane that bugs so many of us?

Societal pressure — We feel the constant criticism of society, comparing us to the unrealistic model that is Jane. She is every man's fantasy, the smiling blonde supermodel in the size 0 bathing suit against which the rest of us women are measured; we know, though, that she hasn't really eaten a meal in years, that she is literally and figuratively starving. Butter-won’t-melt-in-her-mouth kindness symbolizes the fact she doesn’t consume like the rest of us here on planet Earth; she’s above it all. She reminds us that fantasy rarely provides what is required on a day-to-day basis.

Intellectually incomplete — Jane's also in want of intelligence; before you get all up in arms about this, remember there are a number of different kinds of intelligence. Jane might be book-smart, or learned about caring for a home, but she's not people-smart. And yet we're measured against this person who will likely be ill-equipped to protect her assets[1] and by extension, her family.

Passivity — The lack of outward emotion and an utter submission to the conditions of her life bugs the bejabbers out of us. We know innately this is inauthentic behavior; we also know that to become a success wife/mother requires one to call forth passion, to be a vengeful goddess if necessary to protect our husband and children. But this "angel" is merely a pleasant cherub, not the guardian a family requires. The label "angel" also reminds us she is heavenly, at remove from earth; reality is dirty, gritty, demanding, and angels rarely appear with adequate protective powers to intervene when we want or need them.

Lack of Sexuality — The earliest written epic, Gilgamesh, told us something about the role of women in society: Enkidu, the wild animal-man, was civilized by the effort of a woman, which included sex. Jane doesn't appear to be a very passionate creature; she is paired with a less passionate male in Bingley, a man who struggles to muster enough feeling on his own to find his way. This pairing makes sense because she possesses inadequate civilizing skills in the form of "arts and allurements"[2] to "to employ for captivation."[3] Ahem...wink-wink-nod from Austen here about the role of sex.  We see the absolute opposite in Lydia, completely carried away and out of control sexually, and unfortunately unable to civilize her wild man due to her lack of restraint.

The too-good mother is very familiar to us, too. We've seen her with incredible frequency throughout folk and fairy tales.

To be a too-good mother is to be a dead mother, like Snow White's and Cinderella's mothers. Ditto for other representations of too-good girls, like Beth in Little Women. Too-good sister/daughter/mothers are cautionary messages to us that at some point in our lives as women, we must be ready to throw down, get dirty, fight like hellions for our own lives and the lives of our family members.

Childbirth in itself is a fight past death; it certainly was during Austen's time, when maternal mortality was roughly 50%. If we do not fight through society's norms and the pain of birthing, we will not produce life, nor will we survive the experience. This is an existential message to us: the fate of our own lives and the ongoing success of humanity relies on us not being too-good.

This is why we embrace a "bad Jane"; she is far more real and representative than the arm's-length angel Austen presented. We know damned well the supermodel purges; seeing the truth behind the "Crisco and some fishing wire"[4] is a far more complex and entertaining story for us.

For folks who love Jane as she is, good for you, pun aside. Too-good is still good, and you respond to this. Jane is the best of Mrs. Bennet's parenting skills, the bright against the shadowside of mothering produced in Lydia. When compared to the untamed animal Lydia represents, Jane is to be utterly preferred.

Fortunately, though, we’re offered more models than just Jane and Lydia from which to choose as models of emerging womanhood, parenting, and success. The world was not and is not as simple as a choice between bright-and-dark, which Austen clearly understood.
[1] Chap. 55, Mr. Bennet: “...Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income."

[2] Chap. 56, Lady Catherine: “...But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in."

[3] Chap. 8, Mr. Darcy: “...’Undoubtedly,’ replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, ‘there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation.’”

[4] Source: The Devil Wears Prada (film, 2006)

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