Monday, December 14, 2009

Things that make you go Grrr!

I'm still re-reading Jane Austen by Carol Shields, having gotten well and truly side-tracked over the weekend. (Christmas getting in the way again.)

Anyway, I came across one of those comments/references that just makes my blood boil. On page 70 Shields reminds us that

'Ralph Waldo Emerson remained puzzled by Jane Austen's novels, unable to grasp their value, complaining that they were, in the end, about nothing more than the making of marriages.'

I know, I know, readers and critics have been discussing the domestic nature of Jane Austen's work for many decades now, and I know we've all read and re-read the many arguments in defence of / criticising the small world of her books.

What really galls me, however, is that so few people seem to recognise that the mundane subject matter of her books, her lack of reference to the social upheaval and political unrest of her time, is entirely irrelevant. I mean honestly, what do we expect?

Should Darcy propose to Eliza Bennett by saying,

'In vain have I struggled, as did the Prince of Wales this year in his feelings for Caroline of Brunswick despite his earlier secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.'

Should Mr Woodhouse advise Emma against travelling to Box Hill because Napoleon has just escaped from Elba, and might decide to detour in that direction?

How many works of fiction has anyone read in the last ten years that clearly reference the historical goings-on of the modern day? If I ever read a book that says 'Please sit down, Imelda. I have grave news for you about Assumpta and Concepta, but before I tell you, might I just remind you that the first African-American president is in the White House?' I will chuck it straight on the fire.

Ok, ok, I'm being a little facetious. However, it occurs to me that I myself have recently finished writing a book of a decidedly domestic bent. It is set in contemporary Ireland, an Ireland of NAMA, recession, and public calls for the resignation of bishops over child sex abuse scandals, but - you guessed it - there is no mention of that anywhere in my book.


Because it's not bloody relevant, that's why. My book - like the works of Jane Austen - deals with the microcosm of one woman's life when it goes to hell in a handcart. The recession that we're experiencing might flavour the book a bit like a delicate herb, but I certainly wasn't going to drown the book in it, like chilli sauce, so that everything else is smothered.

Although I'm going to finish by flogging the dead horse again. For a woman of Jane Austen's social standing in the early nineteenth century, marriage was not just marriage; it was the one and only chance for escape and a small, small measure of control over her own life.

And wow, did she ever create some memorable, marvellous characters in pursuance of it.

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