Sunday, March 12, 2006

Why I Love 19th Century Novels

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife."

I recently saw the new movie of "Pride & Prejudice." I enjoyed it but some aspects of it didn't seem quite right to me, so soon after, I rented the old version with Colin Firth, and now I'm rereading the book. Of course it is a great story in all its forms-- I liked the way they adapted the story in the new movie, mostly, and Keira Knightly is beautiful, if a bit too giggly. But the guy who played Mr. Darcy just seemed wrong. He always looked a bit rodent-ish, or like he had allergies or something... Colin Firth was better. I think it's funny how they always have to have a "wet Darcy" scene, though neither of them was really all that sexy. (Bridget Jones must have raised my expectations.)
Anyway, what I really wanted to write about was not Mr. Darcy in his wet and clingy linen, but rather the financial aspects of the story, and really all the novels of that period. I love Austen, George Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte-- there's something appealing about the old-fashioned manners, and the various plot twists almost always lead to a satisfying conclusion in a way that today's novels rarely do. Part of the reason for this, I think, is the strict set of societal rules that gave these authors the structure in which to set up their characters' conflicts and triumphs, and so much of this has to do with money. In all of these books, there are girls without fortunes who need to be married off, questions of inheritance, young men who run up debts they can't pay. Someone is always anguished about being ruined, or ending up an old maid because there's no dowry. There is always a pair of lovers who can't marry because of their differing financial circumstances-- in "Pride & Prejudice", romance ends up erasing those concerns, but in "Doctor Thorne," say, or "Jane Eyre," the woman has to come into an unexpected inheritance in order for the love match to work out.
What always fascinated me is how trapped the characters are by their class. Today, so many of their problems could be so easily solved if someone just got a job! But the world of these novels is always upper-middle-class and above, so of course no one works, or even considers it. A gentleman can own some land and live off its income. If he doesn't happen to inherit the estate, he can be an officer in the military or a clergyman, but there aren't too many other options, other than marrying a rich girl so he can maintain his lifestyle of riding around on a horse and going to dinner parties. Lowering oneself to take a job as a lawyer or businessman just isn't seen as an option. As for the women, all they can do is sit there doing needlepoint, playing the piano, and waiting to get married. If things get really bad, maybe they are sent off to be a governess, but other than that, these books barely even dare to mention any other outcome, and of course it all works out in the end so no one has to worry about it. Money and class end up driving everything.
Today we don't have these rigid rules, and even Harlequin romances now seem to have dramas that turn on subjects other than a rich man saving a virtuous but genteelly poor girl. But sometimes I think our supposedly less class-based society is not as flexible as we think. Back to the idea of keeping up with the Joneses, we all define our needs based on the people we consider our peers. Among today's upper middle class, going to a prestigious college is considered a must, and the accepted path for young people is to graduate from that college, go into a certain range of professions, and find a partner from within that same set. Someone who deviates from that path might not be disinherited and cast out of their family, but it would be considered a bit weird for them to settle into a career as a receptionist in a law office, rather than being the lawyer. Then there are the people who want to become a carpenter-- no, make that "cabinet maker" -- or a weaver/textile artist (not seamstress), artisanal goat cheese maker (not dairy farmer), or pastry chef (not cook). All their parents are going nuts trying to figure out why they didn't become dermatologists or management consultants-- unless there is a nice trust fund in the picture, in which case their vocation is seen as charmingly eccentric (or unless they become extremely successful and famous.) And regardless of income level, anyone who has been part of this world is going to expect to have a certain standard of living, and say that they "need" a new car, or "deserve" a vacation they can't afford, and we know where that leads. Today, it seems, debt is the truth that is universally acknowledged.


SMB said...

Interesting post!

What I've been wondering is, what literature is out there today that illustrates (even slightly) today's financial atmosphere? Your novels are 19th century, the ones I mentioned take place mainly in the 1st half of the 20th--for the life of me, I can't think of anything current. Maybe today's folks don't make for very interesting writing: "I bought a McMansion and two luxury SUVs, and now I'm in debt up to my eyeballs."

Madame X said...

The one contemporary novel I always think of is Bonfire of the Vanities, though even that is starting to be a little out of date. I read it a long time ago, adn keep meaning to read it again. I'm sure I've read other recent books where financial dramas came into play, but I'm completely blanking out on what they were!

Rachella said...

I love this topic & read about it all the time. It's so interesting the in the US, class is so often linked with income.

Zadie Smith, Dorothy Allison, Nick Hornsby, and my favorite, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons all adress issues of class. In non-fiction, there's, Simon Doonan, David Sadaris, Paul Fussell and the quaint Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown