Jane Austen & Today's Era

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In the last year I was involved in a Jane Austen themed e-zine which celebrated the iconic author. With so much talk of her and comparison to today’s cultures, I got to thinking about the parallels between Jane’s world and ours. Each of Jane’s stories follow a strict pattern, although I’ve only completed one of her novels (Sense & Sensibility - and am currently trudging through Northanger Abbey, off and on for goodness knows how long), I do like to think of myself as a self-professed “expert” on any and all her movie adaptations since in all likelihood the only versions I’ve yet to see are the little-known spaghetti types. From a Mormon inspired flick to the colorfulness of Bollywood, if I saw one, I’ve seen them all. 

Probably what any fan will recognize is that Miss Austen doesn’t ever write from her hero’s perspective… in fact, the novels are often a collection of observations and not much of anyone’s emotions are “felt.” With the exception of one or two, all of Jane’s heroine’s are spirited and opinionated, especially for the time period – likely “embellished” on-screen to be relatable to modern audiences. Most of them encounter some type of scandal in their life: Marianne emotionally tainted by her acquaintance with Willoughby; Wickham “seducing” and “ruining” Lydia Bennet; Harriet Smith the “natural” daughter of “nobody knows who” (Emma) and Henry Crawford eloping with the very married Maria Bertram (Mansfield Park). Either a heroine or secondary character in Austen’s works were the “talk” of their community – some for reason’s not of their own making and some, from seduction of the men they shamelessly flirted with.

Today, if a girl is found in Lydia’s predicament – and certainly Marianne's, nothing is thought of it. In fact, it is encouraged, “expected” and accepted. Either way, it’s become a sobering statistic. On the other hand we (using “we” generically speaking) women want and allow ourselves to be “taken in,” even when there are no promises made. Yet, when things end badly, perhaps with what feels like a broken heart, the woman is always the “victim.” Yes, it is an overused cliché, but so true: women “settle.” They become desperate and assume that by the time they reach their twenties, mid-twenties, late-twenties and so on, if they haven’t found a mate yet, they aren’t going to. Yet, if the unthinkable ever happens, it’s often in a situation where the female willingly went, but might later regret. That does not excuse in any way, shape or form the man, but God gave us a mind, and he expects us to be smart. 

Why do parents feel its “okay” for their ten-year-olds to hold hands, go to a movie and at the end of the night, lean in to give their “date” an innocent peck? If that happens on your front porch at ten, what do you expect at twelve, fifteen, or eighteen? Do we really think that things will stay the same? I don’t think so. Unlike times past when Lydia Bennet may have lived, nowadays, we don’t need a man urging us towards immoral behavior; women degrade themselves quite on their own – through various avenues, immodesty being one of them. Girls have no idea just how terrible they look; others know exactly what they want to “say” by their clothes and don’t care (in fact they “want” that). I haven’t personally experienced both extremes of modest/immodest clothing, but am of the belief that you can still be trendy and modest at the same time. As a result I’m actually somewhere in the middle of those extremes. A typical day for me would see me wearing a pair of modern-cut jeans with a shirt that eliminated any inappropriate skin showing or plunging necklines. I know families that believe it’s biblical to wear dresses/skirts no matter what. And that is fine, because it’s a conviction for them. That hasn’t ever been an issue for me, and although I do not profess to know scriptures as I should, I don’t believe that God expects us to wear clothing that covers us from neck to ankle or as would have defined the term “modest” when the scriptures were penned. I believe that He won’t judge us for wearing modern (but modest) clothing. Regency era clothing is gorgeous; everything looked so elegant, from the matching gloves to elaborate bonnets, but that doesn’t mean I wish, as a society we still were asked to wear such fashions. It is interesting to speculate if it wouldn’t be better if our culture would revert to some past customs.

Here’s a thought: Does the mere idea of courtship make your sixteen-year-old roll her eyes and exclaim that you’re being “old-fashioned”? Likely, if that is the first you’ve discussed such a concept, it will inspire rebellion… or worse. We cannot suddenly awake one morning and decide a pre-teen or teenager should be “different.” You don’t like her wardrobe or the friends she is hanging out with? A time to teach those principles starts much earlier. Physical intimacy was considered ruination for a young girl’s reputation, whether it was her fault or not – just being alone in a room with a man could tarnish an otherwise sterling reputation! Dancing excluded, even the act of holding hands was limited lest you were engaged or courting. I don’t have daughters nor do I see myself married in the very near future, but I am a daughter, and although I am just on the outside looking in, I have no regrets how my parents choose to raise me. Many girls bemoan missing prom or other highlights of high school, but it has never disturbed me. Recently, I viewed a DVD about a “new” way of thinking in raising daughters. To most women it will “offend” because of their feminist principles and will make them scoff, thinking it unrealistic. In actuality, it is  not only encouragement to those who believe similarly, but biblical.

Obviously, there were disappointments to parents during the 1800’s – even if only one daughter was off acting inappropriately, it didn’t exempt her family from scandal, quite the opposite; her sisters were equally tainted. Each era has been imperfect, but there is something to be said for men who were truly gentlemen and women who knew how to behave and conduct themselves as ladies. It’s a scary thought when looking at this generation seeing how rare that is – girls’ looking for a guy who shares same values may find it a daunting task. Many of us perhaps think that a fantasy is just around the corner waiting for us, while others are maybe too cynical, assuming that there is nothing even remotely close to a fairy-tale, so we “settle.” I am not so naive to think that life will give me a dream so beautiful as a Disney fable, but even in our imperfect era, as long as the right choice is made in the beginning, we can find an “ideal” romance. But for now, we’ll simply sigh over Knightly’s romantic proposal; Brandon’s steadfast love of Marianne and Darcy’s disregard of “polite society’s” talk of Elizabeth Bennet. These men knew how to treat their female counterparts with respect and ultimately the love that each deserved. 

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  1. Rissi, this post was so well-thought-out and inspiring! Our society today is far too permissive--we need to bring back the morals of Jane Austen's day. I'm not saying that everybody needs to prance around in empire-waist dresses and never go anywhere without a bonnet. But the ideals and standards you read about in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility should still be put into practice today.
    This was so refreshing to read. Thank you!
    (I have a post similar to this in draft right now... I'm eager to read more that you've written on the topic!)

  2. Thank you! There was a lot of conversation about Miss Austen's adaptations back when I participated in an on-line e-zine, so I actually wrote this piece probably a year ago and have merely revised it here and there and then posted it to my blog...

    I don't want society to say that we should wear bonnets (they look pretty in the period pieces though) but I do think SOME of the standards that the characters in Jane's stories held themselves to should make a "comeback" in our culture today. Dating vs. courtship being just one of the things that is really "messed up."

    Look forward to your upcoming post! =) So glad you joined in the commenting.

  3. Excellent post. I have often been asked why I love costume dramas so much in spite of the chauvinism often on display in them -- it's because regardless of the immoral actions of a few characters, it was a time that valued purity and morality much more than our society does today. It's shocking to realize that now those who save themselves for marriage are considered prudes, whereas anything else in the past would have made women outcasts. But sin impacts the world to take us to one extreme or another -- to be too harsh on foolish young women or not harsh enough. Sometimes, it feels like the few of us who do have morals are the last ones standing.

  4. You are so right!
    Great post:)

  5. Charity - thanks!

    Our culture today does its utmost to pull us towards immorality - and it's annoying! For one example, I am continually "shocked" at Hollywood's bid to say it's "okay" for a 13-year-old to see a movie. This past weekend I saw a movie and that was one of the first things I said when walking out of the theater, "so, a 13-year-old can see this!?"

    I think women today degrade themselves whether or not there is a boyfriend involved or not - they do so through dress and behavior. So sad.

    Ella - thanks bunches! =)

  6. Wow, fantastic post!!! It is soooo true! The values we want our children to believe shouldn't be suddenly forced upon them when they're teens but instilled from childhood!

    It's ridiculous that women should bemoan being the "victims" and yet don't want to take the steps to fix it. They talk about guys and the lack of respect for women, but won't encourage guys to take the steps towards respect any more (hey, if a guy wants to open a door for you, then for pity's sake let him!).

    I do not regret for an instant the choices my parents made throughout my childhood and teens - in a lot of ways it wasn't "normal" but I have come out of it a much stronger, confident person than if I had been in the "normal" group of kids doing "normal" things. Not that people who do are not always strong and confident...but it was truly a blessing for me.

    Again, thanks for the fantastic post!!!

  7. Rissi,

    Thanks for the note!

    A lot of my blog friends have said that my comments are for some reason showing up in spam for some reason...you might want to check that. I don't know why they're doing that...

    Anyway! Thanks again! I love the comments and interaction, it's the best part of blogging to me! :-)

  8. I enjoy the interaction that blogging allows for also, Alexandra, so I was really disappointed that I couldn't reply to your awesome comments! Thanks for the advice to check spam - that is where your comments were hiding (I checked it a handful of times early on in my blogging but had forgotten about it since then). I'll just remember that is where any of your future comments will be. =)

    Thanks for your encouragement on this post - you have no idea how great it is to know that my readers believe in some of these principles too - it's so encouraging! I have lost patience with so many girls who are my age because they bemoan so many things in regards to their relationships - and really, it is mainly THEIR fault not the guys.

    Although I do not know any other way (i.e., public schools, etc.) I have no regrets about the choices my parents made in raising me either - it was actually AWESOME. =)

  9. This is so true. my family and I watch the six-hour, Collin Firth pride & Prejudice annually ( or more =) and it's been a great conversation starter about femininity, society's woes, and (for my little brother) what it means to be a gentlemen. Something that stands out to me every time is how shameless Lydia is about her elopement. This just enrages me! haha. But then we have Mr. Darcy's contrast-- he is such the gentlemen as he seeks to set it right.

  10. AnnaKate - the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice was the first one I ever saw... and I was enchanted by it. Now though, my mom and I watch the shorter version with Matthew M. for a couple of reasons. One because it can be easily watched in one night and two because we actually were really impressed by it considering it was condensed in two hours - and each time we watch it, Matthew becomes a tad bit better as Darcy. =)

    You are so right about the film presenting an ideal of how young women - and men should act. Sadly, today that is rarely ever the case.

    Lydia always did rather annoy me in the 6-hour miniseries. Oh! Well... the story easily overcomes one character's flaws.


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