ColumnJane Austen’s tomes on relationships are revisited with 21st century reading glasses.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
These words mark the opening passage of British author Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride & Prejudice. Although the conclusions she draws about love and intimacy are starkly insufficient for contemporary audiences, Austen continues to be fiercely relevant because of her lightning-hot investigative process and sharp social commentary. With a forked tongue pointed directly at the landed English gentry, it’s not so much her what, but rather the derring-do of her how.
For post-modern women, Austen’s world view – with its codified rules and wax seal of matrimony – isn’t so much suspect, but simply quaint. We welcome and also balk at today’s ever changing guard, asking what will become of us in an era defined by what sociologists herald as the End of Masculinity. Boys and girls both are bereft of a compass for navigating the variegated topography of gender, pair bonding, and progeny.
In our era, plurality reigns – rendering outcomes open-ended and unhinged, rather than foregone.
For Jane Austen, the terrain of dating and desire was not simple. Austen, for instance, spurned a suitor once marriage became the relationship’s only inevitability; consequently, she spent the rest of her life alone, but transformed her solitude into a gift – harnessing her time to author Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma. The socially-sanctioned options at her disposal were few, but she certainly gave the finger.
For many women, it’s the sheer abundance of choices that threatens to paralyze momentum; porous lives with few boundaries have their own attendant shortcomings. The introductory statement to a current-day Pride & Prejudice would require radical revision, not least because the very concept of a “universal truth” is an untenable antiquation. Instead of staking out a man of means in want of a wife, I might re-write the text to read as follows:
“That you are wholly and utterly alone is unavoidable; that everything is causal and that we’re all in this together is also inescapable; the rub, whether it be between boys and girls or whatever relationship between two humans, is to harmonize your ultimately abject triviality with your responsibility to change the world, in ways big and small, on a daily basis.”
Berlin-based Abigail Wick is a New York Times and NPR contributor. From an Ex-Pat…with Love is her weekly EcoSalon column about cultural dislocation, romantic relationships and lifestyle choices – filtered through the lens of an American woman living and working abroad.
Image by Kameron Elisabeth