I'm a pretty poorly-read English major. I realized this was a serious problem when I watched Becoming Jane, thinking that the movie's title character, Jane Austen, had written Jane Eyre. I really shouldn't be admitting this. Although, to be fair, I'm sure that whatever I was doing my senior year of high school when I was supposed to have been reading for Brit Lit, it was a lot more interesting than Brit Lit. I should also point out that I have read Jane Eyre fairly recently and did, in fact, know that a Bronte wrote it, it just slipped my mind for 90 minutes or so.
At any rate, to atone for my being dumb, I'm now reading Pride and Prejudice. The non-zombied version, no less. It turns out it's actually kind of good. And possibly more interesting than whatever I was doing my senior year while not doing homework.
So the book is about middle-class land-owning gentry, folks at the beginning of the 19th century who sat around and did nothing all day. They had all these insane rules of manners and conduct, which I can only assume came about from the fact that they had no jobs and thus nothing better to do than sit around making up arbitrary rules. There's a scene in Becoming Jane in which Jane, played by Anne Hathaway, is having a bitter argument with her love interest and keeps trying to storm off in a huff, but must curtsy and say "Good day," each time she attempts to do so.
What I'm loving most of all is the way characters still manage to be rude with each other, even within the strict bounds of the rules. In one scene, the main character, Elizabeth, has just gotten a marriage proposal from a wormy fellow name of Mr. Collins. Elizabeth replies: "Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them."
Collins assures her that it is quite common for women to reject marriage proposals when they actually do want to get married, and he will marry her, she needn't worry. She replies: "I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time." The rules of the way they were to speak makes it impossible to state a desire straight-on. There's all this flirting with meaning that causes, in this case, a willful misunderstanding on Mr. Collins's part.
It seems, in the book, that the more compliments one heaps upon another, the more earnestly the one is trying to tell the other to go to hell.
As to the movie, I always find biopics like this one interesting - ones that show an author whose life just happens to have all these parallels to their most famous works - as though the authors weren't clever enough to make things up. In the case of Austen, her life didn't match her work, but sort of foiled it, you might say. Although Pride and Prejudice, and her other books from what I hear, is centered around women finding husbands for themselves, and daughters, and so on, Austen never married. She fell in love with a man named Tom Lefroy, but the man's family disapproved of the match and kept them apart. Lefroy married another, but named his eldest daughter Jane, a fact that makes me a little misty every time I think about it.
The movie at least strongly indicates that Jane not only never married, but given the strict rules of society then, probably never had anything like what we'd consider a romantic relationship. After she meets Lefroy, she writes to a friend, "Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together." I mean, if sitting down together is shocking...
Just another reason I'm glad I was born in the 20th century. That, and hygiene, dental care, psych meds, the right to vote...