Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Austen and the boring

I read an article in grad school about the ennui of characters in Jane Austen (come to think of it, it might have been a bit more about ennui in general in the novels of the period) -- I have no recollection of the article except that it focused on the fact that for the upper middle classes in late 18th and early 19th century England, life was really, really boring. Or at least boring to our standards.

I finished Sense and Sensibility a couple of nights ago and as I read it, I was again reminded of the apparently endless rounds of visiting, of playing cards with people who may or may not appeal to you, and the necessary sitting around. Austen is always critical of the social standards and has her protagonists be more active -- or at least more active within the constraints of their culture. Those women are readers or artists (but only in that upper middle class way -- never "real" artists) or wits.

I mostly bring this up to point to a particular passage about Elinor and Marianne's stay in London and their endless visits with the Steeles and the Middletons:

Though nothing could be more polite than Lady Middleton's behaviour to Elinor and Marianne, she did not really like them at all. Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given

Lady Middleton is -- of course -- a bit dim in Austen's account and a bit boring. The problem for her seems to be that Elinor and Marianne aren't actually bored -- they read. They do things to occupy themselves, rather than simply flatter the people around them.

Reading is so often suspect in the novels -- but those who read are generally rewarded.

Oh well, I suppose there are lots of people who must think that what I do is boring -- I like to read and then to talk about it.

1 comment:

R said...

Those women are readers or artists (but only in that upper middle class way -- never "real" artists) or wits.

I wonder about that (I'm really enjoying your Austen posts, btw--I am very much an Austen fangirl). I'm not sure that many of her protagonists make it up to even the upper-middle-class level of accomplishments. In a lot of ways Austen seems to create heroines who fail to live up to the conduct-book standard of the time: Elizabeth is hardly talented on the pianoforte, is "not a great reader," and doesn't draw; Emma never practices as much as she ought and makes lists of books she doesn't read; Fanny Price has no talents that I can recall (but does love reading), and nor does Catherine Morland (who can only bring herself to read novels--no history!). Anne Elliot is a lover of poetry, but I think Elinor and Marianne are unusual in that they are actually talented at drawing and playing, respectively.

Which makes your point even more interesting: what is it that makes them so *not* boring, or bored?