Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You, Me, and Edwardian England

Miss Austen Regrets

I've been talking for weeks with a friend about Masterpiece's presentation of The Complete Austen, and we were talking on Monday about A Room with a View. He asked me why I liked these stories so much about free-thinking women in repressive societies and if it was a reflection on what I thought to be a repressive modern society.

I think what he was ultimately asking is if my love for these stories is any indication of my perspective on modern society. The answer is yes, but not exactly as directly and literally as I think he was thinking. The answer is yes, but in a general sense.

The thing I really like is that in these stories you have this culture of oppression/repression/suppresion, however you want to think about it. And then there is one girl who dares to speak out and be a free-thinker, and she feels alone. And she is scolded or mocked for it. Then she finds out that she is a part of a usually well-hidden, yet unquestionably admirable, lineage of women who have free thought and intelligence in common (by the way, I think those two are necessarily related). She doesn't even know these women exist until she happens to learn that someone she knows is actually a free thinker too. But that person has either had to repress the truth about herself to remain a part of polite society, or she is rich enough or old and venerable enough to not care one way or the other--in which case polite society shrugs it off as senility or fanaticism. So now she feels not quite so alone, though only barely less so. But her character and fortitude require that she be true to herself.

Then she finds one man who lives in this culture. In fact, he is successful and respected in this culture. And he actually admires her unfashionable qualities. He finds her refreshing and sometimes exciting. And he usually champions her cause--he stands up for her when she remains true to herself. And that is the 19th century version of the white knight on the horse slaying the dragons that threaten to extinguish the princess' life, only in this case it is a cultural and societal death, an intellectual death, not a literal physical death that the knight prevents.

So the romance, the beauty, the poetry of the whole idea is this: Nothing ever changes. Chivalry is chivalry always. A hero is a hero always. Art, beauty and intelligence are always, in the end, superior to whatever ugly forces threaten to squelch them. A brave, kind, free-thinking, intelligent man championing a brave, kind, free-thinking, intelligent woman is always romantic. And it is always a story worth telling, whether it is medieval, Victorian, Edwardian, or Modern. It is the story I tell to my own daughter each day, whether we're specifically talking about being a woman, or merely practicing it by the things we do, the games we play, the way we interact. Being true to yourself. Being beautiful, inside and out. Being brave. Being lovely. Falling in love. Changing someone's world. All of this is what I have always wanted to be the story of my life--and now the story of hers. And that is why I love these stories. The reason classic tales are classic is because they always work. They always speak to the "current."

So to answer the question, yes, these things are what is of utmost importance to me. Not because of change, though. In fact, because of the opposite. The really important things are the things that never change. I don't believe we're any more or less free thinkers in today's society than we were in any other time. I don't think the dragons that we face today are any more or less treacherous. They simply have different faces. In the end, the story of humans is always that, human. The details change a little here and there. But the meat of the story is always the same. If you think of time in terms of grand scales, as opposed to little bits, things never really change. The pendulum swings this way and that, but it swings around the same truths today that it always has.

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