Horror Stories

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.

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Horror Stories — 25 Comments

  1. Interesting take!

    Being someone whose historical studies were formed around the women writers of the period, including Austen, I gotta respond.

    In both theme parks and RPGs people are playing “let’s pretend.” What are women who want to role-play Austenian stories doing? Of course everyone will have their own answer, but for purposes of discussion, I want to generalize a bit. Beginning with reminding the reader of the fact that Austen knew very well what kind of world she lived in. She was quite aware of plague, stinking cities with no sanitation, rotting teeth, grinding poverty, and the rest of it, but these were not things she could fix, either in person or in story form. What she could fix was how women chose to take agency within their particular constraints.

    She lost female friends and relatives to childbirth. She waited on letters from her naval brothers, knowing quite well that each could be his last, and we can presume that those brothers, on coming home, told hair-raising tales of fighting hurricanes and epidemics as well as Frenchmen and pirates. But she set out to depict what she thought would be the world as it ought to be, and in that world, what women think matters. And she set her stories in the best characteristics of her world: verdure, gardens, comfortable houses, villages in which personal safety is enough taken for granted that young people took long walks by themselves, and no one helicoptered anxiously.

    Secondly, when we playact, we choose the elements of the game. People who want to pretend to live in Austen’s gentrified country villages want a beautiful setting, pretty clothes, good food, good conversation—wit being especially welcome—and music and dancing. Romance may or may not be present. These are the elements Austen chose to represent as her backdrop, as she wrote about women of her time trying to find places for themselves in her particular stratum of society.

    So, RPGs: playacting in pretty dresses for a time is fun, but all the while we know we can all go back to our modern lives with sanitation, medical advances, and many more choices for women—while still being aware of how far we have to go in all these areas. Same as RGS of the American Civil War, and the SCA’s Fun Middle Ages, etc.

    Two points about the novels.

    First, there was nothing stopping Marianne Dashwood from a career as poet. Women had been earning livings by the pen all through the 1700s. Many poems and novels didn’t have a byline. Or had a false one.

    Secondly, Mr. Darcy as a “catch.” I feel obliged to point out that this was a real first in literature: the entire novel is about the fact that Mr. Darcy is not acceptable as a catch in Elizabeth’s view until he’s done some serious self-examination, and pretty much reforms himself in order to be an acceptable suitor to a woman who in every other respect is not his social or economic equal. What Elizabeth thinks matters to him. That was such a huge step at the time. (And in story terms, and after countless rereads over the decades I am still convinced that that marriage will be the making of them both not because of the estate, the wealth, and so on, but because they are equal partners, and they talk to each other.)

    In that sense, I see Austen reaching across the intervening centuries to remind us that yes, her time is past, but she still has something worthwhile to say, woman to woman.

    • I like what you said. You’re probably right that the marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth has elements that are good for them both, and I hadn’t realized that his actions in changing was something new (though that doesn’t surprise me because I do see Austen as a writer who use the conventional setting of her stories to give us so much more).

      My point with Marianne Dashwood is that the only “adventure” open to her was a romantic-appearing but otherwise dreadful man. She could not have other kinds of adventures, even if she wrote poetry. I am very tired of the story of the rebel girl who runs off with an unsuitable man. I just want her to run off. But of course, there was no real way for her to do that.

      Even an RPG of being a woman in Regency times would give me the heebie-jeebies. But I’m fine with other people playing them as long as they’re playing them with some awareness of what the reality was. I certainly hope those playing in Jane Austen’s world are working at being a strong-minded woman like Elizabeth Bennet and holding out for a Darcy who could change instead of just dreaming of romance with some fancy rich guy who respects them.

      Speaking as someone who was taught (in Texas in the 1960s) that the U.S. Civil War was between “us and them”, I think it’s likely that those particular reenactments have contributed to the bad understanding of that history that underlies our current issues of racism. We might be better off if most our RPGs take place in worlds that are clearly not based on real history instead of asserting that they are.

  2. I am an historian, and one thing I hear from time to time (said in a disparaging tone of voice) is “Oh, you like history because you want to live back then.” Uh no. I know too much about the past, and I value my health and comfort–not to mention human rights!–too much to want to live in olden times. That said Miss Jane Austen was of the gentry class writing for her peers. She was certainly aware of far more than she put in her books, but while being far more realistic than other contemporary writers, she also said, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”
    I think she was consciously doing a spot of idealize world building. Her society is by no means a perfect place, but it is a place where happiness can be achieved.

    • I don’t see the books as an idealized view of that world, except perhaps in the occasional marriage that involved respect between the partners. That’s why I find Austen so hard to read: she lets me know what that world was really like and it horrifies me.

  3. Back when I wrote straight Regency romances, I was sometimes asked, rather spoonily, “Don’t you wish you lived back then?”

    Hell no. I love the era for multiple reasons: the politics, the art and architecture, and yes–the manners, which could be weaponized at the drop of a well-practiced pin. But the stories that I loved best are of women like Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott, who follow the rules… and are penalized for it, and finally have the courage to follow their hearts instead. Every single one of Austen’s female characters knows the price of being a woman in her society; how they react to those rules is part of her shrewd observation.

    That said, Austen was writing about a specific segment of society: the gentry but not, generally, the aristocracy. And there was a lot of stuff going on in the social strata above and below. My favorite line in Emma Thompson’s lovely Sense and Sensibility is when Mrs. Jenkins chirps “Mind your slippers, ladies! The horses have been here!” Because there was a lot of shit underfoot and all around. Austen, like a lady, ignores the shit when she can. (On the other hand, she is relatively merciless toward the aristocracy. Again, like a lady.)

    • I think that by writing about the gentry with her keen eye, Austen gave us a thorough understanding of the world without dwelling on the shit.

      (My memory of watching the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility was leaning over to my sister to observe that I didn’t understand why Marianne wanted that creep when she could have Alan Rickman. And my sister said, “He wasn’t Alan Rickman in the book.”)

  4. The people going to Austen Weekends are all, to a woman, planning to cosplay the very highest echelon of society. The top five percent. They would be horrified if, when twenty of them arrived, eighteen of them were immediately put to farm labor or serving in the kitchen. But that’s roughly the proportion you’d have to have, to get the lady in the muslin gown and bonnet sitting down to afternoon tea. It’s like reincarnation. Somehow when you discover your previous life you were always an Egyptian princess or a Roman senator’s wife. You were never pushing a plow in Gaul or mending fishing nets on Rhodes.

    • And even if you were one of the lucky ten percent who didn’t have to labor all the time, you were most likely going to marry the curate who was full of himself or the playboy who was going to run through your funds and leave you penniless.

      • Oh, you’d be marrying your brother, in Egyptian times. Even if he had disabling issues. The only way to keep the blood “pure.”

        I will say, anent the curate full of himself, Charlotte Lucas is one of Austen’s most brilliant, and modern, inventions: Charlotte is not the least romantic. She knows what she wants, and she gets it. Yes, the price she pays is a boring, stuffed shirt husband, but it’s clear she knows exactly how to manage him, and yet give him a good life, because she plays fair. And she will come out just where she always wanted to be. She will run Longbourn far better than Mr. Bennet ever did.

          • True. Charlotte Lucas would have made a splendid Prime Minister. And over in France, there were several women who could have kept Napoleon firmly in his place, guarding the city. Or before him, could have ushered in true democracy. (See Olympe de Gouges.)

  5. I don’t see Austen’s novels as you do. Nor can we blame the author for the theme park and cosplay that so many enjoy thinking means they have entered content. But I do rather blame them for handwavium the stark fact that almost all of us, including these of us responding to you, in that world, we would have been servants at best, and scullery maids or pit women at best. That was where the true horrors for being a woman, a child, a pony even in that world lay — in my opinion.

    In contrast though, to a certain degree, I’d like to contrast Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which, for Romance with capital R, one can hardly get more ROMANCE or ROMANTIC. She never leaves out the horrors of the 1740’s and following decades. Not even our beloved First Couple escapes them, and suffers them cruelly, particularly the male. However, there were compensations that aren’t possible in our world, which the female protagonist, who had mystically time travelled back there, and returned to her present of post WWII modern England and the US — she hated the filth and the stinks (recall how much we make of the stink of the past ….) and the noise of machines — “It’s so noisy here,” she protests, though no one knows that by the implied “there” she meant 1744.

    Of course, there is dental horror, in the days of cheap sugar everywhere thanks to the African slave trade to the Caribbean sugar plantations, and that indeed was horrible, as horrible as the prevalence of flogging, the class system — and O does Gabaldon make this this clear.

    • I am not blaming the author for those who now romanticize her books and want to role play her characters. I just can’t get past the horror of even the good lives. Of course, while I can imagine a future that is much fairer on the gender front, not to mention the many other kinds of unfairness, I am still grateful to have come of age in a time where being a single woman with a sex life and a career was not odd. I had choices that even my mother and grandmothers did not.

      But you and Brenda both make a good point about the lives of most of the people, and Austen doesn’t address that well at all. Do you know of any author in her period who wrote stories that were more inclusive? I suspect few did and that most publishers wouldn’t have been interested, but I’d like to be wrong.

      • You’re talking about a totally different paradigm. There are plenty of authors of the period who wrote about the grit and grot of the period (don’t read the chapter about Bath in Smollett’s HUMPHREY KLINKER after a meal) but characters, especially those lower on the spectrum, or who lay on the outside of accepted society norms, tended to be caricatures, villains, or simpletons. For example, in RODERICK RANDOM, gays on shipboard are right there, in ways that people of the time knew actually happened, but highly caricatured.

        One of the interesting aspects of watching the novel invent itself is seeing how authors found their way toward sympathy for the diverse, as well as developing the craft. (Richardson’s CLARISSA is a great example of experiments in point of view, direct and indirect dialogue, and indirect free discourse, before any of those had a name. )

        • That’s what I suspected. I am not well-read in the era, but what you say about Clarissa makes me want to read it. (I was not an English major because they made you read things I didn’t want to read. I read Aristophanes and Euripides instead.)

          • Yeah, I opted out of being an English major when I discovered we had to constantly read dreary “relevant” novels, pretty much all written by men, on which we had to write about existentialism or some topic that was male gaze. A history reader could go straight for primary sources and dig for the women’s voices.

            Speaking of which, Fanny Burney’s CECELIA, from which the phrase “pride and prejudice” came, depicted the grasping, greedy so-called “fine people” with unflinching eye. It demonstrates a lot of the awkward tropes of the eighteenth century, but one can see the influence on the young Jane Austen.

  6. I see Austens novels as stories of survival – and all the compromises that most people of the time had to make. All set against a background of horrendous economic and political unpredictability and randomness. It was a transitional time moving towards the beginning of modern capitalism with people trying to survive by much older social and economic rules.

    Have you come across Liza Picard’s ‘Dr Johnson’s London”, “Restoration London” and “Regency London”? They really brought home to me the drastic changes of the period. (And don’t read the chapter on dentistry in the first book the day before a root canal!)

  7. Nancy — in answer as to whether other fiction writers of the period treated the dreadful inequalities and poverty of Austen’s period — not so much, because that kind of realism doesn’t come into fiction until much later. Then it becomes a genre even, almost, to itself.

    The reformers of Austen’s time were more active in terms of abolition, prison reform — but the focii reality of then endless era of war with France for control of the globe, well, trumped, almost everything else.

    This is also a huge factor in terms of marriage focus in Austen’s time: so many men died on the battlefield, of diseases that always afflict armies, there were more women than men at the time.

    As Scarlett O’Hara addressed it when the awarebess of the death tolls of the War of Rebellion hit her (at least awareness hit her, when it came to her class) — “Who were the women to marry?”

    • I suspected there wasn’t much good stuff about the inequality, but I thought I had better ask, given my ignorance.

      I think realizing that the War of 1812 was just one piece of the Napoleonic Wars changed my perspective on it all.

      And since I don’t share Scarlett’s view of the world, I think the view should have been that it was time for the women to take over. But that’s a story for our generation, I suppose.

  8. Well, there’s Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders,” the picaresque adventures of a lower-class girl who whores and cons her way to eventual (though somewhat temporary) prosperity. But that was published around 1722, almost a century before Austen’s works, and it was satire, though Moll probably isn’t quite as much of a one-note caricature as most of the lower-class/socially unacceptable supporting characters Sherwood was referring to. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in “Vanity Fair” (published in 1847, although much of the action takes place during the Regency/Napoleonic wars period) was another conniving wench-type character who was acutely aware of her own relatively low social position (although she started out as a mere poor-relation member of the lower rungs of the gentry class, rather than a slum kid/servant type like Moll Flanders) and became determined to social-climb her way to a more comfortable position by any means necessary. Admittedly, in Becky’s case this tended to involve things like stealing a more naive well-off friend’s suitor, then back-stabbing her way through (relatively) high society, rather than actual crimes like Moll’s theft and prostitution.

    Again, this is extremely cynical satire, and Thackeray goes out of his way to make Becky Sharp a pretty unsympathetic character. Although there is one scene near the beginning where Becky metaphorically thumbs her nose at the entire class snobbery-riddled system of the young ladies’ seminary where she’d been treated as a second-class citizen by the corrupt headmistress who blatantly favors richer girls like Becky’s friend that to modern readers tends to come across as a lot more positive and empowered than the author may have intended at the time. Basically, the headmistress makes a big production out of giving each favored girl a copy of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (which was then relatively new and, presumably, expensive) when she leaves the school. Becky’s friend Amelia gets one, but Becky is poor and not quite two-faced enough to conceal her ingratitude, so she’s not supposed to get a copy. But the headmistress’s rather silly, sentimental sister feels sorry for her and tries to give her one as she’s leaving anyway. Becky throws it back in her face as the coach is driving away. This is obviously a lot more problematical than it would be if she were defying the discriminatory headmistress herself, instead of taking out her resentment on the woman’s somewhat condescending but well-intentioned sister. But I imagine modern readers are more likely to feel some sneaking admiration for Becky’s rejection of this last-minute largesse than the average member of the contemporary audience was, even if Thackeray himself could be interpreted as implying that in this case, at least, Becky might not be entirely in the wrong. Of course, “Vanity Fair” was published several decades after Austen’s novels (she may actually have been dead by the time it appeared), so it’s not from quite the same period as “Pride and Prejudice,” etc., either.

    Another example of an early English novel focussing on a more socially downtrodden character is “Pamela,” a previous novel by Samuel Richardson, the author of “Clarissa.” Pamela was a housemaid who rather unrealistically both successfully resisted her wealthy employer’s advances and managed to win him over to the point of proposing marriage by means of her unyielding virtue (and beauty). (At least, that’s my understanding of what happens–I read an abridged edition of “Clarissa” in college, but the professor just talked about “Pamela” briefly in the classes on Richardson.) I believe “Pamela” was also published at least a couple of decades before Austen’s novels, but it does deal with social inequality more directly than Austen does, albeit in a rather moralizing manner (assuming Richardson used more or less the same writing style as he did in “Clarissa”).

    Then much later on in the Victorian era (i.e., the 1890’s) there are the works of Thomas Hardy, who basically shares your opinion that the nineteenth century was a horror show even for many people who were supposedly well-off. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is probably most relevant in terms of its depiction of class and gender inequality. The heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, is from a poor rural family. I think her family are basically tenant farmers or something, although they’re supposedly descended from the aristocratic d’Urberville family who used to be the big landowners in the region several centuries before. (Presumably this is intended to make her fate more ironic and interesting to nineteenth-century readers who would normally be reluctant to plow through a three- or four-hundred-page volume about a heroine of such lowly social status.) Anyway, Tess gets seduced and abandoned by a guy from the nouveau-riche family who have now usurped the d’Urberville name. She has an illegitimate child and her reputation is ruined, etc., etc. She manages to outrun fate for a while by moving to a different town where nobody knows her, but the happiness she finds there for a while is eventually destroyed when her new boyfriend finds out about her past in the worst way possible. (If you want further details, but are hesitant to embark on the rather long and mostly depressing book, the 1970s[?] movie version of this starring Nastassja Kinski is actually pretty good, although some fairly substantial plot developments are omitted.)

    • Oh yes, Pamela (1740, long before Austen was born) was the first runaway best seller. There was merchandizing attached to Pamela, and it spawned a host of satires. It is proof that literature’s many twists and turns were dictated by sales, something that puzzles people now: “How could that have ever been popular?” It pretty much set epistolary novels as the norm of the form for the next half-century, until Austen and Sir Walter Scott both found narrative strategies that did away with it.

      Thackery’s Vanity Fair (1848) came out as an excoriation of the then-popular silver fork genre–a name Thackery came up with. That subgenre was not attached to Austen at all, in whose books the upper class were uniformly unadmirable, but on a series of books that extolled the high life, beginning with Bulwer-Lytton’s Gary Stu wish-fulfillment novel Pelham in 1828 (a decade after Austen’s death)–again, a runaway best seller, and pretty much put men in black suits for the next century and a half.

      Curiously enough, I think that Becky Sharp was the model for Scarlett O’Hara; both novels were set against war, but phew, do they take different views of the societies around them. Thackeray was savagely pillorying the social order, especially those at the top, whereas Mitchell was mourning the lifestyle of the plantation owner, forever shattered by civi war.

  9. Scarlett, however, set out to re-make her life and ‘never be hungry again,’ taking action and thinking unlike women of her class were supposed to — yet she managed to just hang on to a position in it, due to her family and other relatives. Also, being Scarlett, there were always men for her to marry — which, in fact, she didn’t really want to do, but reality of money and position, came first.

    There is so much just awful about Gone With The Wind, but it also contains a female protagonist seldom if ever seen in fiction anytime anywhere, with the exception perhaps, as mentioned above, Becky Sharpe — and that was, as also mentioned, satire. Gone With The Wind was anything but satire. Indeed, there are so many people alive-o today who want to cosplay Gone With the Wind. Often they are so wealthy they buy up the old plantation houses, and get very angry when the historical societies of the towns to where they’ve re-located talk about the connection of these homes and estates with slavery. When I was living on the Eastern Shore, the denizens called these people “Gone With The Wind Players.”

    BTW, Mitchell herself said she never read Vanity Fair until some time after publishing GWTW — that, in fact, she found the work too much of a slog to get into. However, she did feel she was doing with GWTW what Dickens, an author she loved, along with some of the other Victorians — presumably including George Eliot, accomplished.

    One of the best writers on what became known in 19th century England, as the “social novel” was the Bronte sisters’ friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the first monumental (and not always factual, and often romanticized) biography of Charlotte and her family. Charlotte Bronte was inspired to write a social novel herself, as Gaskell was so successful with it, despite the focus of such work was antithetical to Bronte’s own romantic fictional focus of woman’s passions, in her Shirley — and that book is quite a messy failure. Charlotte Bronte, in fact, was quite opposed to what laborers and factory workers were trying to accomplish with strikes for better conditions. One can see that Bronte was more aligned with the 18th century attitudes of the universe made by Samuel Richardson than with those of the progressive elements of the 19th century.

    • Very good point about Gaskell, who did write about the issues of the lower classes, poverty, environmental toxicity, rape, single motherhood, and the like. It’s too bad that she mixed those concerns with hoary Victorian cliches (like the incredibly long, preachy deathbed speeches Victorians loved so much) and by the time she began eradicating those from her writing–and so came up with the powerful, brilliant Wives and Daughters–she had reached the end of her career.

    • Gone With the Wind had such a major cultural influence and is so toxic. It’s a mainstay in the rewriting of the narrative of the Confederacy. And while you make a point about the book centering on Scarlett, who was out to survive, she remains a terrible human being. (In fact, all those who worry about women authors who write unlikeable characters should point to this book as an object lesson in how it can be done.) This book seems to still be read uncritically.

      Interesting that the 18th century authors might have done more than the 19th century ones when it comes to the class issues. I shall ponder this more and perhaps go back and read some people I’ve missed.

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