Sunday, January 3, 2010

similarities between two very different women

This afternoon I settled down at my desk with the full intention of completely editing my resume and cover letter to fit a museum facilitator position that I just found out about yesterday.  But it in quiet in my apartment; the only roommate who has been here with me since I returned left this morning.  She'll return tomorrow, but the silence is stifling.  I was not in the mood for music, however.  I wanted to hear conversational voices, not  melodic ones.  So I borrowed another roommate's copy of "Becoming Jane" (2007).  I do not sit easily in front of a TV, so I thought I'd this movie, which I had a minimal interest in seeing, would be nice background music while I concentrated my energies on the resume.

By the end of the movie my resume was completed, but my cover letter had only two sentences in it and I was fighting back tears.  Not that I really take much stock in this presumptuous biography of Jane Austen's life; such Hollywood treatments of a famous person's personal life should be approached with caution regarding its veracity.  But the story itself struck me by its similarities to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, and that was a little too much tragedy for me to take.

Keep in mind that I don't consider Jane Austen's work to be Victorian in any sense of my definition.  She died before Queen Victoria was even born and the industrial revolution that defined the society of the late 19th century had not fully formed at that time.  But George Eliot wrote and lived in the Victorian Era.  Both women's novels featured intelligent, interesting female characters, many of whom were attracted to men who were not their social equals.  Both women wrote about love and social outcasts and propriety and breaking propriety.The Bennett family incurs great scandal when Lydia runs away with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice; in The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver's partial elopement with Stephen Guest causes even the parish priest to eventually dismiss her as a governess to his children to "save face."

The greatest difference between these two women, however, is their personal lives and their characters' final fates.  Austen never married and, although "Becoming Jane," depicts a scandalous partial elopement and subsequent rejection of that elopement (which brought The Mill on the Floss to my mine), she never seemed to have any taint on her in regard to her writing or her perceived sexuality in real life.  I've read three of her books thus far.  All depict mention of scandals and sex masked in PG language, but all of them eventually become happy endings.  The women of no fortune or prospects end up happily married, or the parted lovers are reunited.

Eliot, on the other hand, lived a common law marriage with George Henry Lewes (who was already married).  I've read three of her books thus far as well, and nearly everyone seems to be unhappy or have something truly terrible happen to then.  People commonly die at the end of her books.  They're rather depressing in nature.  And rarely is the intelligent female, as attractive as she may be to the intelligent male, ever truly happy with her lot, even if she attains goals she had aspired to achieve.

And yet all the characters are truly human, with their own flaws.  Austen's Jane Bennett is awkwardly shy around Mr. Bingley even though she is attracted to him. Elizabeth Bennet is a sharpshooter in her exchanges with Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in time when they are just rude.  Marianne Dashwood is the silly little hopeless romantic.  Eliot's Dorothea Brooke yearns for intellectual enlightenment but then loses ambition and self-respect when her intellectual snob of a husband puts down her dreams.  Maggie Tulliver is a wild child who lives to please her brother, even if she does not always obey him.  These are not perfect women by a long shot, and they live very real lives, at least until the end.  Then Austen goes for the ending with a wedding, while Eliot seems to favor the sad, reflective ending. 

Such an ending, ironically enough, was how "Becoming Jane"reached its conclusion.  And it brought the same tears to my eyes that Eliot's The Mill on the Floss did only days earlier as I finished the last chapter.

1 comment:

  1. I've not read Eliot, but just a quick comment on Austen. Her books only seem to indicate happy endings with everyone married off appropriately. The fact remains that several of the marriages depicted are trainwrecks. They are doomed, unhappy arrangments made on whims, out of desperation and just this side of being shotgun. Yet despite their flaw they are nevertheless socially approved. Austen was a feminist ahead of her time so her writings reflect that even appropriate marriages are not a panacea for everyone.