Sunday, April 01, 2007

the shoals of the NYT

This NYT article about how Jane Austen looked is both dumb and a complete misreading of her texts. The author -- a, you guessed it, MAN -- bumbles around for a bit at the beginning, talking about Austen must not have been pretty and how that's a problem. He goes off the cliff at the end:
We’ve watched them so often that we think we really do know what Austen’s people looked like, and the men — the good ones, anyway — are all hunks and the women are all adorable, with just a hint of gingham-gowned sexiness. That their creator might not be part of this club seems unfair. We can accept that Austen might have been a Cinderella — underappreciated, with an elusive beauty of character and intellect that maybe took a little getting used to — but the dreary spinster of the Cassandra sketch isn’t anyone we recognize.
That's WRONG. I don't need to have taken an Austen seminar to know that. Pride and Prejudice makes a big deal out of the fact that Elizabeth Bennett isn't beautiful, "not half so handsome as Jane," the family stunner. Her sister Mary is not considered worth describing; Lydia is merely cute, mostly a flirt; and Kitty is a follower.

As for the men! Bingley, to be sure, is described as "wonderfully handsome" and Darcy as having "handsome features" and "noble" bearing. But it could be argued that the whole damn point of the book is that appearances aren't objective. As soon as the crowd discovers Darcy has more money than Bingley, they declare him far better looking. Yet he's still an ass.

Here's the famous passage dear Mr. McGrath should have consulted before blithely going on his Week in Review way:
``Come, Darcy,'' said he, ``I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.''

``I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.''

``I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty.''

``You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,'' said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

``Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.''

``Which do you mean?'' and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, ``She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.''
Very pretty, very agreeable, says the nice guy; tolerable, retorts the more fastidious. By the end of the book, of course, Darcy has remarked that that "tolerable" woman has grown on him. Voici:
``I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, "She a beauty! -- I should as soon call her mother a wit." But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.''

``Yes,'' replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, ``but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.''
Ooh, snap! (I love that scene.)

In Sense and Sensibility, all three Dashwood daughters are at least relatively good looking, it is assumed, but in Austen's descriptions of them at the beginning, their appearances aren't even mentioned. Marianne, the more romantic daughter, of course falls for a dashing and ultimately worthless Willoughby. Later, following more sober counsel, she ends up with the good-hearted but old, plain Colonel Brandon. Elinor, by contrast, wiser to begin with, falls for the good-hearted and not sparkling Edward Ferrars. Here is how he is described:
Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement.
Now, does that say hunk to you? No. Willoughby is the hunk and he turns out to be a paper doll of a man.

On the basis of this evidence, I suggest to you, Jane Austen did not like hunks, nor did she entirely trust beauty. She understood, as many of us have come to (and as my brother will, eventually,) that the hottest girls are very often the bat-shit crazy ones and that the hunks are often arrogant fools. To judge a woman, an author, by such shallow measures -- calling her "plain," "homely," even "dreary" (!) -- and saying that that must disappoint her readers -- is insulting in its shallowness to her AND us.

Maybe if Austen had been a beauty queen, she would have been married at 15 and never written a word. Would that be better for anyone? Maybe if Fran Lebowitz, Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Eddie Izzard, and Woody Allen had been captains of sports teams instead of social outsiders who were no doubt made fun of as children, they wouldn't have needed to cultivate the talent that has made them such priceless entertainers. If I do believe in a God, it's one who has consciously given us, fair or not, people who range from hideous to Lohan, and all for a reason: nerdy types (to disappear into labs and invent things), malcontents (who forge revolutions), the weird (who write poems) and the wacky (who paint). And the Simpsons and Spears for the schadenfreude.

In P&P, what recommends Bingley ultimately isn't his face, it's his character, and what recommends Darcy ultimately is that he's willing to admit he was wrong, that a person can learn to see a kind of beauty -- whether entirely inner or merely subtle -- they originally overlooked. I would like to hear that Mr. McGrath has learned a similar lesson. But since he seems to be very much a product of our Good = Beauty, Bad = Ugly society with its starkly mistaken and unsubtle ideas of what makes women worthwhile, I'm not holding my breath.


Rebecca said...

You are wonderful. I'm glad you were picked on at least enough as a child to make you develop your writing skills.

I hear you're sick. I hope you feel better soon.

ester said...

ha ha thanks! yes, i am illin, sweating, coughing, all that good stuff, although clearly i'm not too sick to write indignant polemics. let's hope i never will be.

src said...

why won't the NYT stick to news? any of their reporting that has the smallest inkling about being about feminism is terrible.

and for the record. let it be known that the authoress thought of me whilst she wrote this (well thought out, and in the right) diatribe.

nate said...

This shit right here is why I check this blog.

Rebecca said...

yet another of those moments when i go, THIS IS THE EFFING PAPER OF RECORD?!

yeah, i saw it too--did you see the other piece (also in Week in Review, kind of buried, by a woman...) which basically said, no matter how much biographical detail we have about an author, we're going to want more, and by the way, literature stands on its own without all that.

and finishes by saying, so what if she was plain? another (unheadlined) blow against lookism, we pray.

someone should do a NYT criticism blog. i did like the Vows column this week: pretty Jews meet cute in court, one on trial for stealing 4000-year-old Iraqi artifacts!

ester said...

src, all for you!

thanks nate :)

and yeah, rebecca, i did see that piece -- it cooled me down a bit. i also like that it was sort of complementary to mine, since its author (a woman, of course) discoursed on Emma. which i should reread. i liked it, i just prefer the ones that are about interesting female relationships and Emma's a bit more of a solitary practitioner. at least to my mind.

nate said...

Jack Shafer's "pressbox" columns on Slate (which I hold to be superior to Salon, but...meh, that's just me) pretty much serve as a running criticism of the NYT. I love his stuff.

nate said...

Here: Nice and orderly.

J-squared said...

my only point of contention: Roseanne Barr in a list with the likes of Eddie Izzard and Woody Allen

ester said...

jj, is your issue that roseanne is a) more attractive than those men, b) less attractive, c) more funny, d) less funny, or e) something else altogether that should put her in different company?

j-squared said...

something along the lines of d) less funny, based solely on her white trash days of Connor family antics and bad standup routines. but my opinion could be antiquated because i don't know what she's up to these days...