I picked up More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern last night, inspired (momentarily) to finally review the essays I’d enjoyed reading so much last year. A thorough review might one day get written but this is not it as I got sidetracked rereading my favourite essays and delighting in both Kaye-Smith’s and Stern’s arguments.
Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first book on Jane Austen, Speaking of Jane Austen, was easily the most delightful thing I read in 2013. The follow-up volume is not quite as faultless but that is only natural: how can you follow up a book that is both perfect and comprehensive? The essays here are always entertaining but perhaps lack the marvellous focus and energy contained in the first book.
Last night, it was G.B. Stern who set me pondering, with her discussion of Austen’s use of the Cinderella legend:
Emma and Harriet are the only two of Jane Austen’s heroines who pair off with their equals: Emma with Mr. Knightley, Harriet with Mr. Martin. Pondering on this, I began to suspect a preoccupation with the Cinderella legend. All the rest of these young women (not merely heroines in its traditional meaning) illustrate and restate the theme, though without sentimentality: they marry above their station, and achieve it on beauty and virtue in equal parts.
I, as I think I have touched on before, enjoy the escapism of the Cinderella story – who doesn’t? – but am troubled by its practical implications, especially in Austen. For all her romantic moments, Austen was a writer very much concerned with practical details and with the creations of, to use G.B. Stern’s phrase, “life-size” characters who have, two hundred years later, remained remarkably familiar and relatable:
She’s neither bitter nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size. You’re absurd, I’m absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet. She does not have to distort or magnify what they’re like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-created them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence…
So how can such life-like people survive the too perfect fairy-tale endings their author imposes on them? Any marriage has its stresses but unequal marriages, the kind Austen specialised in arranging, face even more burdens. Perhaps that is part of why Emma has always been my favourite: there is a worrying, unequal marriage made but not by our heroine (poor Jane Fairfax deserves so much better).
The young Tilneys I am not overly worried about since, though young at her marriage, I have every faith that Catherine, having grown up in a happy home with sensible parents, will be able to create the same sort of environment with the intelligent and good-humoured Henry. But everyone else I worry about.
And there is much to worry about, I think. How often do Anne and Captain Wentworth speak before they become re-engaged? What do they really know of each other? How can Elizabeth’s winsome impudence serve her as the chatelaine of Pemberley? Has she any idea of the responsibilities and conformity her new life will require? Will passionate Marianne grow old before her time? It is not too difficult to imagine her ten years hence having her head turned by a dashing new arrival in the neighbourhood while her husband sits by the fire wearing one of his flannel vests. And why must Fanny Price’s life be spent adoring the undeserving Edmund? It is such a waste of a fascinating young woman, though we must admit that it is the culmination of her life’s ambition.
The match between Elinor and Edward is more equal than many of Austen’s marriages, but it is one of the least satisfying. Who, aside from Simon T., really likes Edward? And, more importantly, who doesn’t like Elinor and want the best for her?
No, it is much more restful for me to think about the Knightleys and the Martins, contented with the familiar and sure of happy, easy lives with partners who share the same backgrounds and values, than to ponder the fates of Austen’s other pairings.