So 200 years ago today precisely Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was finally published. This 17 years after her father first sent it out for publication when it was an epistolary novel called First Impressions; this after probably at least 2 wholescale revisions and one “lopp’d and chopp’d.” On the 29th she wrote to her sister: “I have got my own darling child from London,” and asks whether there are hedgerows in Northamptonshire because she was ever anxious about the literal verisimilitude of her portraits of settings and was writing Mansfield Park.
It really is not clear that the text had been improved. But it was given to the public in its truncated state. Since others are celebrating this day by imitating Bloomsday: where Joyceans read aloud as much of Ulysses over the course of a day as anyone could stand, so people were reading P&P today, perhaps with greater ease.
I’m thinking its wide dissemination, its licensing other texts by women might serve as an aspect of why we remember this day. Austen’s texts provides sociological events — on TV starting with the 1995 BBC/WBGH Pride and Prejudice. This Sunday, Downton Abbey (built partly out of the initial situation of P&P, a man with too many daughters and not enough money to support his estate) dramatized the centuries-old profound pain and death of women of women in childbirth in the story of the third daughter, Sybil (Deborah Findlay-Brown). Not very shocking any more, but once upon a time showing parturition in this way was taboo.
Well the first text to depict the realities of an abortion may also be said to have been authorized by Austen’s P&P. Rosamund Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets. The careless hero, married, indifferent to a coming child of his mistress (a term Olivia cringes at), Olivia ends up having her abortion alone. She must not have a child or she’ll be out of a job forever, “ruined” if found out. (Like Ethel in DA.) We are spared none of the banal sordid details, including her time in the bathroom when she returns to the flat afterwards.
To support herself or just by chance during her ordeal Olivia reads Pride and Prejudice while recuperating from her abortion. We as readers are left to take this as ironic or read it as straight (she really takes comfort in the romance figure of Mr Darcy, all teh while knowing better). In Pilgrimage, another courageous novel, Dorothy Richardson’s powerful cyclical novel no one reads aloud over the course of a day dares to hint at an abortion by its heroine, Miriam, who also favors Austen’s novel. And Miriam, like Elizabeth Bennet, is visited by an older authority female figure, the cad married lover’s mother, who comes to persuade her to give him up, only to have Miriam not only refuse but give away she’s pregnant, upon which the cad married lover’s mother breaks down and flees. This is replicated in The Weather in the Streets, and of course it all descends from Elizabeth standing up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though Austen probably read such scenes in Smith and Radcliffe (more explicit and radical) earlier. In Invitation to a Waltz, Lehman’s heroine declares Austen is one of her favorite authors.
Lehmann wrote one of the great novels of this century by any gendered-person and by women: The Echoing Grove (badly titled, the title chosen by her publisher). The story is of two sisters, both aging: Madeleine, now a widow who lives alone, and Dinah, also a woman whose husband is dead (he died in WW2 fighting in the International Brigade in Spain). Dinah has come to visit Madeleine, an attempt at a reconciliation after an estrangement of perhaps many years. Madeleine has a grown daughter, one Clarissa, who loves cooking and has not yet appeared. There is a dog, Gwilyn. So another of these novels centered in women’s lives.
Early in the story we discover that the two heroines who are sisters were rivals for the love — or perhaps lust is the better word — of the husband of one of them. Madeleine’s husband, Rickie Masters, became the lover of her sister, Dinah, and Dinah became pregnant by Rickie and gave birth to a stillborn infant. This paradigm is suggested in the first chapter (why they became estranged) and the still birth is recounted early in the second.
Two women closely vying, rivals, for the love of a man: sometimes wife and mistress, sometimes two girlfriends, sometimes mother and daughter; in non-western cultures, two wives, and sister non-married and wife. As I recall Penny Richards (the moderator of WWTTA at the time) suggested this paradigm was central to women’s novels frequently and came out of the structure of our male hegemonic societies.
Lehmann treats this woman-on-woman relationship with great and intense power. We see how central is who or what a woman’s mother is and how she treated her daughter is central to the daughter’s personality and outlook and expectations and goals, for Madeleine and Dinah’s mother has recently died (as well as Madeleine’s husband, Rickie) and this brings the two women together — to divide the inheritance or at least discuss their futures. They visit the room of Madeleine’s grown unmarried daughter, Clarissa, a place which shows Clarissa gathering her history out of artefacts and sites of memory. Clarissa does not want to create a home apart from the house her mother lives in or the things she’s taken from her mother’s history, her two brothers, and her grandmother. An allusion to Richardson’s heroine? probably. And Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
The inward style allows Lehmann to move back and forth in time swiftly and the use of nuance and subtleties bringing out a depth of passion to the surface as what is there if only we will look reminds me of Elizabeth Bowen and (more recently) Elizabeth Janeway. “The lineaments of ungratified desire.”
I could cite women writes endlessly here. Annie Ernaux reading Lehmann’s Dusty Answer is my most recent. A friend reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend discovered the book that counted for that pair of women was Alcott’s Little Women.
Unfortunately the film adaptation, The Heart of Me, turns the story into something misogynist with the wife (Olivia Williams as a sterile witch-like frustrated women) and her sister (Helene Bonham Carter) a self-indulgent mindless Marianne. But it’s telling that Carter played the Marianne role in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, where we find Emma Thompson in the Elinor role.
It’s not a coincidence that Williams also played Austen in Miss Austen Regrets. The general culture at large has a strongly ambivalent attitude towards the intellectual self-sufficient self-controlled woman. All these part of the general legacy of Austen and the specific trajectory inherited through her novels.
200 hundred years ago today,