Tag Archives: gender

In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 2.

11 Sep

So I will begin this post with a second anecdote, because who doesn’t love anecdotes. This past spring, the tubes were all abuzz with excitement over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was cautiously excited, until I found out that it was written by a man, and then the excitement level lowered a little, for reasons I had trouble articulating. Fortunately, my friend Judith managed to use words moar gooder than me on this subject, so rather than potentially drag this out for a whole other post I will instead just point you to hers. Anyhoo, the book was released, and I was curious, so I flipped through it at Barnes and Noble. In the back there was a “readers’ discussion guide”, and it was there that I hit the one that made me close the book, put it down, and never look back: “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”

Basically what this said to me was that the douche writing this had no understanding whatsoever of

  1. Early nineteenth-century England
  2. What life was like for women in early nineteenth-century England
  3. Austen

Here is the thing: what made Mrs. Bennet ridiculous was not that she wanted her daughters to all get married. What made her ridiculous was that she was overexciteable and overemotional for a woman of her age and station, and that she was bad at judging what it was appropriate to say in front of company and what was best left to the family. Wanting to marry off her daughters, and marry them off well, did not make her a bad mother for the time.

Here is the next thing: the Bennets are at the very bottom of the upper class. In Chapter Seven, it’s noted that Mrs. Bennet’s father “had been an attorney”, that her brother-in-law was a clerk for her father, “and succeeded him in the business”, and that her brother “settled in London in a respectable line of trade”—all fine lines of work, but all lines of work nonetheless, meaning she was middle-class and married up into the gentry. She wants her daughters to do at least as well as she did, first and foremost because the only way any of them are guaranteed security is if they married men with secure incomes. Remember Mr. Collins: because of the legal system in place, since the Bennets had no heirs (you’ll note I don’t say “male heirs”, because at the time, that would’ve been a redundancy, since only men could inherit) the Bennets’ estate would go to him when Mr. Bennet died. They would just have to depend on his not turning them out if they wanted to, you know, continue having a roof over their heads.

It sucks by our standards. It sucked by their standards, too, in a lot of people’s eyes; there’s a lot to suggest that Austen was one of these people herself. But it was a fact of life. Again, we get into “the past is another country” territory here. Reading Pride and Prejudice with the knowledge that good marriages were the only chance the Bennet girls had at stable, secure lives independent of their parents, I like to think that Mrs. Bennet becomes a little more sympathetic, her motives little more understandable. Make no mistake, she’s still there in part as a comic foil to Lizzie and Mr. Bennet, but the fact that she wants her daughters to marry well isn’t what establishes her thusly; how she deals with this fact, as I said earlier, is.

In conclusion, I think the main problem with Mrs. Bennet is that she is not a character who aged well as times have changed and women’s options have increased. No longer is marriage the primary goal for most young women, if it’s even a goal, period; women from rich families can inherit and stay rich; women who aren’t going to have inheritances to make them rich have plenty of options besides getting married or being passed from relative to relative for support. It can be hard, therefore, to understand why this is so important to her.

(Also, I kind of think Mr. Bennet is a bit of a dick, and I like the 2005 version for drawing a direct line between his benevolent neglect and Lydia’s behavior, as well as Mrs. Bennet’s dramatics and Lydia’s behavior, but I think I have lectured you guys enough for now. But one day, when you least suspect it, you will look at this blog and BOOM.)

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Review: Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

12 Aug

So things got a bit rough for awhile there, but I’m going to give this whole thing another try. One regular feature from now on is going to be me talking about historical I’ve read recently. Definitely novels, maybe some non-fiction as well, popular or academic.

Title: Flygirl

Author: Sherri L. Smith

Period: 1941-45

Location: USA

Let’s not mince words: I loved this. Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman from New Orleans, who decides to pass as white and join the WASP—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—program. The WASP was instituted to free up male pilots for combat duty; women ferried planes, test-piloted new aircraft, and flew targets during practice.

If you know me at all, you will know that I like a lot of the following things:

  1. women doing awesome things
  2. examinations of how race, class, and/or gender intersect
    1. in American history
  3. young adult fiction
  4. family and duty-to-family issues

If you do not know me…well, now you know that. :D Basically this delivered all of those things, and as a consequence, I freaking adored it.

As I said, in order to join the program, Ida Mae must pass as white. I said this quickly, and if in doing so I implied that the decision is made or treated lightly in the book, that’s my mistake, because it so totally is not. In fact, one of the things that drew me to it in the first place was the fact that the issue of passing was addressed; it was something I hadn’t read much about in the past and was interested in learning more on. Ida Mae agonizes over the decision to pass, not only because of the constant care she must take (she makes excuses not to sunbathe with the other WASP and comes up with an elaborate system to keep her hair from getting wet when swimming), but because in passing, she must cut herself off completely from her family. Ida Mae’s brother goes missing in action; when their mother comes to the Texas base where WASP training takes place to deliver the news in person, Ida Mae must tell the other girls in her flight that the woman is “my mother’s maid”. Though the issue is a constant struggle, it’s not repetitive in the least: this is such an essential conflict in the narrative, and is so skilfully handled, that to ignore the constant agony Ida Mae endures is to short-change the character and the readers both.  Flygirl raises a whole lot of difficult questions and issues, with regards to race and gender both, and it doesn’t offer easy, pat answers to them, though Smith still manages to wrap everything up into a satisfying (if open) ending.

And then, of course, there are the characters. Ida Mae narrates the story, and her voice is crystal-clear, brisk, and engaging. The characters, particularly her strong-willed mother and fellow WASP airwomen, are lively and rich characters—not an easy thing to accomplish in a first-person narrative. This is a war story, so some of the cliches that go along with that exist here, but this is…I don’t want to say a subversion, because that’s totally not what it is. This is the story of a black woman’s war, and more than that, it’s a powerful reminder that yes, by God, such a thing existed.