Jane Austen wrote horror novels.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Jane Austen wrote great books, ones that show us so much of the detail and truth about the lives of some women in Regency England that it feels like we’re in that world. Through that lens, we get a more thorough view of the overall society, one that provides an excellent balance to the focus on the wars we get from history books.
She certainly belongs in the canon of great English writers. But I can only read her in small doses. Her stories are so painful that I physically hurt when I read them.
To be a woman in her day and age is my idea of hell on Earth, and I say this while living in a world dealing with autocrats, white supremacy, and the climate crisis.
So imagine how shocked I am to find there are women who want to pretend they live in that world. I can imagine very few things (war, famine, concentration camps) more horrific than being in that world, even on a pretend basis.
Now I should confess that I am a person who despises theme parks in general. One of the advantages of not having children is that I was never compelled to take them to Disneyland or Disneyworld, something that apparently is still a required feature of childhood even sixty years after the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on television. You could not pay me to go to those places.
But this is about more than theme parks. This is celebrating a reality in which women’s lives were limited in every possible way. If the only decent life available to a woman in that era in Britain came from a good marriage, the vast majority of women were screwed. Even if you assume that there were decent men in that warren of extreme male privilege coupled with an extreme class system, there surely were not enough of them to go around. And since marriage was for most in the “better” classes a financial affair, there were even fewer choices.
The only books set in Regency times that I can read with pleasure are Madeleine Robins’s Sarah Tolerance novels. Like Miss Tolerance, I would make a terrible whore, so I love reading about a woman who makes her living with her wits and her swordplay. (Since I would also make a terrible wife, the traditional options wouldn’t have helped me at all.)
I do not believe Jane Austen was writing romance novels, though apparently a lot of people take her books that way. In the ones I’ve read (and since I find them hard to read, I confess to not having read them all), at least one woman character makes a decent marriage to a man who respects her worth. But the books also include women who’ve made horrible marriages to dreadful men, not to mention all the ones who’ve made safe, boring marriages to men who don’t have anything resembling the brains and abilities of their wives.
And, of course, there are the many spinsters with no resources, living on crumbs from resentful male relatives or working for a pittance as governesses.
In Jane Austen’s novels, women who should have been running England are condemned to spend their lives managing the affairs of pedestrian men. Every time I read Sense and Sensibility, I think of how much better things would be if Elinor Dashwood had been part of the British government. And what kind of poetry or art might Marianne Dashwood have given us if she’d had an outlet for her romantic desires that was broader than attraction to a man looking to take advantage of her?
That’s why I don’t see these books as romances.
Now I know many people enjoy both writing and reading romances. Some of the ones I have read were great love stories with heroines of character and men worth falling in love with. And even if we’re talking authors whose work I do not care for, I am not one to condemn others for their reading habits.
In my youth I indulged in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, which are equally appalling worlds for women. I’ve read a lot of books by misogynistic men and got through them by identifying with the male characters and rejecting the women myself. I’m not proud of this. I also find it impossible to read such books these days.
But I am still horrified by the idea that any woman of the present day would want to even pretend she lived in Austen’s world.
I am an optimist by nature, and even in dark times I want to hang on because something good might happen next, but I shudder to think what I might do if my only choices in life were grinding poverty beholden to others who didn’t even like me or marriage to the likes of Mr. Darcy. And Mr. Darcy is considered a catch.
Like I said, horror novels.