Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps (Volume 1), Robert Rodi
Jane Austen seems to be the kind of writer who’s never taken literally, but is interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted from different angles depending on who’s doing the interpreting. Austen’s books challenge readers to seek out her “true” intentions. On the surface, most readers see her as the premier author of the “Regency Romance,” an early form of chick-lit. In one Austen chat room I stumbled into, the gals were ranting and raving, ready to castrate some guy who said Sense & Sensibility is no great romance, Madam! Apparently the romantic contingent is quite attached to their viewpoint.
In a blog devoted to Jane that’s written by a whole bunch of alternating writers, one of them asks whether Austen is a sensitive Romantic or a sensible Pragmatist. At this point I’m throwing my hat into the ring to proclaim Jane Austen a social critic, and an excellent one at that. I vaguely thought all along that this was her strong suit, and now my opinion has been reinforced by Robert Rodi’s impressive and eminently entertaining Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps (Volume 1). I’m only two-thirds through, but Rodi is so convincing he had me by Page 3. Chapter by chapter he critiques Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Mansfield, in that order. I intend to re-read P&P (my 3rd go-round) before I move on to Mansfield, to see if I think his theory still holds up.
Even if it doesn’t, I love Bitch In a Bonnet for Rodi’s writing style if nothing else. He lets it rip, going for the jugular through the use of slang, sarcasm, and the darkest humor he can find; for instance, he repeatedly takes swipes at Jane Bennet for her optimistic, sickeningly sweet opinions of people no matter how dastardly their deeds. If he isn’t wanting to strangle her she’s getting bopped on the head by Lizzy Bennet–in his fantasies only, of course. At times this over-the-top swashbuckling gets to be a bit much, and exerts something like the pressure I feel when I’m with someone who’s perpetually “on.” Luckily, I don’t have to interact with Rodi, so it isn’t s that much of a burden.
Although I said Rodi has me convinced, that’s only while actually reading his book–I don’t want to fully commit for or against his case until I’ve done more re-reading and re-thinking. For now, though, based purely on my own impressions, I have to admit that My generation did not invent the feminist novel! I don’t know if anyone got there before Jane Austen, but she definitely gets a prominent seat at the table. She has shown us British life and a class-based society from the point of view of its effect on women, primarily, the economic disadvantages under which they lived. She has laid out the whole system of the inheritance laws and the practice of entailment, which kept women poor and utterly dependent on their
husbands–and woe to the woman who didn’t find one of those creatures to protect and defend her for life. In addition, Austen was exquisitely attuned to hypocrisy-or as Rodi might put it, she had a highly developed bullshit detector. She knew what people thought and meant beneath their false words and fake smiles. She might have been a misanthrope who sought out the worst in human nature and therefore found it, but even if that was the case, there’s no denying that what she exposed was real.
Romance? Most of her couplings are based on the man’s income and the woman’s countenance and connexions (that’s how she spells it). What can her relatives and friends do for him and their future? Will their status go up or down according to that of her family?
By their lack of parental discipline the Bennet parents allow their youngest daughter to behave in a way that might doom the two eldest to perpetual spinsterhood. A girl’s chances of matrimony can be ruined by her baby sister traveling with a dastardly villain (Lydia Bennet and Mr.Wickham) without first respectably marrying, for shame! Yes, it’s absurd–but it is the way things were. I dare to venture that perhaps some of today’s taboos will some day be regarded as similarly absurd by a more enlightened generation. We can only hope.
- “We really do inhabit the novels”: An Interview with Elaine Bander, President of JASNA Canada (sarahemsley.com)
- 10 Jane Austen oddities in popular culture (englishatwaterloo.wordpress.com)