by Sherwood Smith
Rebecca West once said about Jane Austen:
Really, it is time this comic patronage of Jane Austen ceased. To believe her limited in range because she was harmonious in method is as sensible as to imagine that when the Atlantic Ocean is as smooth as a mill-pond it shrinks to the size of a mill-pond.
On one of my gazillion rereads of Northanger Abbey, I was paying attention to the differences between young female slang and male slang. This was sparked by an Andy Hardy movie that my daughter and I watched, in which Mickey Rooney’s character was instructing his father in hip slang for females—droop, break, zip—as opposed to the slang of his father’s day—wall flower, cut in, and I-forget-what. To us, the dress and hair of the droop that everyone so rejected was no different than the young lady with zip. They all looked forties. And the guys looked equally droopy.
Back to Northanger.
The Thorpes were Austen’s examples of heedless slang. Isabella is profligate with language, if nothing else. She cannot say five minutes, she speaks of ages, these ten ages, this age, this hour at least. She’s thrown into agonies, she’s in ecstasies, any female she wants to be seen being nice to is as beautiful as an angel or the sweetest girl in the world. “Were I in command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world, your brother would be my only choice.” “You shall be infinitely dearer to me than my own sisters.” That said while she’s busy looking about the ballroom for a better target, once she’s safely attached Catherine’s inexperienced brother.
Thorpe’s slang is not expressed in terms of emotion. Instead, the exaggeration is all in outward display. “This horse cannot run less than ten miles an hour. Tie his legs and he will still get along.” “Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it. The wheels have been fairly worn out these ten years, and as for the body, upon my soul, you might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch. It is the most devilish little ricketty business…I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds.”
What we find in Austen is that females did not emulate males, even the most marriage-mad. They had their own slang, their own rules for interactions, their own lives, yes even when a male wasn’t in the room.
Austen usually illustrates her point through the action in her novels, but she comes right out to address the reader from the women’s side—in Northanger Abbey, when she defends novels (she does it twice, actually) and in Persuasion, when Anne and Captain Harville stand at the inn window and debate emotions, Harville saying that histories are proof of males being stronger, a point which Anne will not accept because the pen has always been in male hands.
That exchange is serious. The defenses of the novel are mock and serious both. Austen uses satire to puncture male assumptions of superiority; last night when I finished chapter three, there was that mocking paragraph after Catherine (the heroine) meets Mr. Tilney (the hero):
Whether she thought about him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream about him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.
What male pomposity was she skewering with her sharpened pen? None other than the literary titan Richardson, in Rambler #97.
Note the horrors of women getting to go to restaurants, and this huffy observation: Yet settlements are expected, that often, to a mercantile man especially, sink a fortune into uselessness; and pin-money is stipulated for, which makes a wife independent, and destroys love, by putting it out of a man’s power to lay any obligation upon her, that might engage gratitude, and kindle affection.
Jane Austen was writing during a time when the idea of romantic love was going through as much revolution as politics in various capitals, a revolution that continued to swing the pendulum all through the following century; Jane Carlyle and Mrs. Hemans were once well known for their forward views, though they and their issues have become so invisible that few read those women now.
Not that Austen began the war. She was just a skilled banner carrier, as was Lady Mary Chudleigh, who wrote in 1703:
“To the Ladies”
WIFE and Servant are the same,
But only differ in the Name:
For when that fatal Knot is ty’d,
Which nothing, nothing can divide:
When she the word obey has said,
And Man by Law supreme has made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but State and Pride:
Fierce as an Eastern Prince he grows,
And all his innate Rigor shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the Nuptial Contract break.
Like Mutes she Signs alone must make,
And never any Freedom take:
But still be govern’d by a Nod,
And fear her Husband as her God:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty Lord thinks fit,
Who with the Pow’r, has all the Wit.
Then shun, oh! shun that wretched State,
And all the fawning Flatt’rers hate:
Value your selves, and Men despise,
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise.