serve, love, and obey

Masterpiece Theater showed the first part of a new Emma Sunday night, which left me hungry for more and thus I had no choice but to get online and immediately start rereading the book -- unfortunately my books are all still at my parents' house, which is very irritating at times like that. I never got around to retrieving the book all week, so I read the whole thing online: coming home from 10 or so hours of staring at a computer screen at work to stare at a computer screen several more hours before bed. My eyes are shot. E-books are not for me. But bless the copyright laws that have the good sense to set a book free at a certain point so that I have access to full text online! I have a strange relationship with copyright law. You'd think, as someone who has always gotten a living on intellectual property of some sort or another that I would be a strident supporter of them, and yet I've always felt offended by being denied free access to information I happen to want. But I'm not prepared to try and sort through my thoughts on that right now, I came here intending to write about Ms. Austen.

There's just no escaping her conservatism. You can probably avoid it in P&P and S&S -- or maybe I just haven't read them in a while. But it's unavoidable in Emma. Everyone must stay in the socioeconomic sphere to which they were destined by birth, or bad things happen. It's so hard to reconcile such odious politics with my passion for the books. Particularly when the central focus of every book is the very sort of paternalistic love story that grinds my gizzard the most. All of Austen's heroines marry father figures who mold and teach them how to be a better woman. Emma's intended, who is 16 years her senior, tells her he fell in love with her when she was 13! Sweet Jesus. Her heroines are strong, assertive women, there is no doubt about that. But all that is cured by falling in love. It's exasperating to confront this sort of thing in a writer I adore. And it worries me: here I've been reading these books from an impressionable age, no doubt forming many of my ideas about love and romance on them. What insidious inflence might they have had on me?

When I was about 10 or so I was reading a collection of feminist fairy tales -- Don't Bet on the Prince, edited by Jack Zipes -- while at tennis camp and one of the camp counselors, a woman in her twenties I'd guess, asked me, with obvious horror, whether my mother knew I was reading that book. She gave it to me, I answered, extremely puzzled. I'm still puzzled by it, although I also now find it extemely amusing. What on earth did she find so shocking? Would she have been similarly disturbed had I been reading a collection of traditional fairy tales, in all their violent misogynism?

I tell this story here because it occurs to me that Austen's nefarious influences probably had some counterbalance in my reading habits. Now I just have to wonder whether I should feel dirty about the pleasure I still get from her books -- which, to be honest, has as much to do with her exquisitely crafted plots, in all their matrimonial obsession, as it does with her wickedly sparkling prose.

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