Silly Novels by Women Novelists; or, Reflections on Jane Austen, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Winning at Scrabble

From the Novel Readings Archives

Seeing the movie tie-in edition of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic prominently displayed in a bookstore this weekend reminded me of the rant the novel brought on when I read it a couple of years ago. As you would expect from what follows, I haven’t seen the film.

Well you see, it was a busy week, and sometimes it’s nice to have something light to pick up and read over breakfast or whatever….but Confessions of a Shopaholic sure is lame.   I’m certainly  glad I got this book from the library and didn’t pay a cent for it, because I want to get rid of it as soon as possible.  I don’t necessarily object to a little mindless diversion. But–what really irked me with this one was actually the same thing that irks me about Bridget Jones’s Diary, although that novel is much more clever and entertaining: what’s supposed to be the charm of foolish, incompetent women?  Is it really so hard to imagine smart, committed, capable women in romantic contexts?

The answer of course is no, because the supposed “mother of chick lit,” Jane Austen, does precisely that.  Elizabeth Bennet does not win Mr. Darcy’s heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect and charms his socks off.  Anne Elliot doesn’t deserve happiness because she happens into an insight or two after a whole book of being silly and irresponsible: we know all along that Wentworth will be the foolish one if he falls for anyone without her integrity and capacity for intelligent action.  None of Austen’s protagonists discovers, conveniently, that having no real interests beyond clothes, shopping, and sex, no professional competence, no ideas of any substance, is actually the way to true love.  “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne Elliot famously protests when confronted with literary ‘evidence’ of women’s character. “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Yet with the pen in their hands, some women peddle this kind of “sell-yourself-short” fantasy to women–and it sells!

Is the appeal of this variety of “chick lit” that it reassures women that not only do they not have to be smart and successful to be attractive but that their failures (blue soup?!) will make them more appealing to smart and successful men?   Or is it just easier to put that kind of story together than to confront (as Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot all do) just what kind of challenge a strong woman poses to conventional ideas of romance, femininity, and narrative?

Once upon a time my (very shrewd and professionally successful) grandmother cautioned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble.  The message was that brainy women are off-putting, that competence is incompatible with charm.   Though she was a huge fan of her granddaughters’ successes, I think she was not altogether wrong–not in principle, but in practice.  Sex and the City, which in many ways belongs in the “chick lit” genre, is actually very smart sometimes about the difficulties independent, successful women face in negotiating romantic norms and expectations (remember the episode in which Carrie buys Berger a Prada shirt? or the one in which Miranda wants to take Steve to an office party?).  Sex and the City presents fantasies of other kinds, to be sure, but overall I think it refuses to make its women silly and often this is precisely where their romantic problems begin.  In this respect anyway, perhaps the series is more in Austen’s tradition than I would have thought, and certainly more so than even Bridget Jones.  In any case, I say go on and win at Scrabble if you can!  Your self-respect depends on it.

(originally posted January 20. 2008)

50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

This week in the Globe and Mail‘s “50 Greatest Books” series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen’s famous remark about her “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” and claiming that Austen “shoved aside” broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that’s all she knew. And yet … Austen’s family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin’s husband guillotined in the French Revolution….Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience–the fact that a woman’s station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)

I agree entirely that “Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age” and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting “in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness” (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the “talky, civilized celebration of minds” that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason “this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life.” But to describe Elizabeth’s achievement strictly in terms of “her fidelity to herself” is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel’s revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her “happiness,” for instance, is part of Elizabeth’s great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against “the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth’s ringing declaration that she owes no “reference” to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine’s appalled demand “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth’s reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pas to a tradesman’s daughter. (interest caught? read the rest here–you won’t regret it, all 90o pages of it…)

Austen’s delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy’s benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine’s world.

“How much more interesting their life together promises to be,” Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, “than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors.” Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be “turgid”: it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy–again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls “payback.”