Thoughts on Megan Garber’s Essay–Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze

Photo credit BBC/UK Telegraph

There have been a lot of Jane Austen articles and/or clickbait online this year–they have been so plentiful that I’ve been saving the links to re-read and digest them.  Usually I print them out and save them for the train ride commuting to or from work.  Megan Garber, wrote a very interesting essay back on July 17, 2017 via The Atlantic online. The complete title as noted above is — Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze.

Ms. Garber starts off with the recent exhibit held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC: “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Sadly I did not make it down to DC to see this exhibit, I did however enjoy many photos by writers, and Janeites who did travel there and posted the photos online.

One of the key items on display she describes was, “the shirt,” the tunic worn by actor Colin Firth in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Ms. Garber contends, as many others that the scene where Mr. Darcy was a pivotal cinematic, soon to become iconic moment, “he dives in –clad in nothing, at this point, but his breeches and THE SHIRT.”  Correctly, Ms. Garber notes the displeasure of many Austen scholars and perhaps some more traditional Janeites, since that scene is no where in the book at all and that the film’s director Andrew Davies took a bit of liberty objectifying Darcy, “proud and prejudiced and Fabio-ed.”

Would like to pause here and say a couple of things.  First, Pride and Prejudice  was the first Austen I ever read, back in the early 1990’s as part of a classic novel course in college.  A young 20-something I was juggling a modern/popular novels class at the same time–which lead to the unfortunate timing of reading Gone with the Wind at the same time as Moby Dick — kid you not.

At the time, I liked Pride and Prejudice, but I sort of was bemused by the barriers drawn between economic class levels, the idea that everyone was worried about everyone’s honor, and of course marrying off the girls. In short, I missed a lot, in a word — whoosh.

Our classics teacher did show us a film version of Pride and Prejudice, the old Hollywood black and white version starring Greer Garson–who was a lovely Elizabeth Bennet, and Sir Laurence Olivier was a dark, brooding Mr. Darcy.  To be noted, the Hollywood version of this film did not follow Austen’s book very closely either, most notably inserting the archery scene. Also the ending was tweaked with Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine paying a faux visit to truth test Elizabeth’s intentions, and not to express her blustering outrage as in the book.  Most of all, the gowns are not period appropriate, it’s like someone raided an old Civil War stockroom on a studio back lot, and then decided to call it a day.

My mum still loves this version, and Olivier’s portray of Darcy is her favorite.  Generational speaking, I’m more partial to the 1995 version which yes did spur me to re-read Pride and Prejudice, which was the beginning of my becoming a Janeite.  The scene that most impresses me is when Darcy visit’s Elizabeth at the Collin’s parsonage cottage, and is sort of trying to find out how she would feel about living so far away from her parents at Longbourne.  This scene was in the book where they discuss travel distances and “good road,” and I think Mr. Firth, did a really excellent, subtle job of Darcy’s sort of trying to find out how she felt, in of course in his planning to propose to her. Lizzie of course has no real idea what he is fishing for here–she’s is freaked out and put out by his surprise visit.

On going back to the essay, Ms. Garber makes an interesting point that the pond dive sort of humanizes, if not objectifies Mr. Darcy into a characterization beyond a stereotype–of a wealthy man, “both something simpler and more radical: a sex object.”  Agreed, it’s interesting and certainly an ongoing debate among Janeites — the idea of a favorite Austen hero, romantic lead is often divided, and again I think generationally.  Although these days, I tend to agree with the younger Janeites and vote for team Captain Wentworth.

Darcy though I would say is the origin of the bad boy with the heart of gold–again really an iconic character in literature, film and even sadly in real life.  Sometimes you people who are obsessed with the “bad boys” or “bad girls,” and I think they are sort of mistaken in their reality–that this person is misunderstood in some way– they will not accept that is not going to turn around into someone they can love forever.  And I’m not citing Austen here, because I don’t think the majority of these people have even read Austen–although I do think it remains a strong and much large part of inter-relational culture.

If I had to give a current pop culture example I would cite, MTV’s Catfish the TV Show, which although it has been scripted and edited, revisits the same theme again and again, as people falling for the perfect persona online–the illusion–but they cannot one hundred percent connect with this person–even the evasive and/or bad behavior does not seem to dissuade them.  The people featured on this show/or who participate–seem to almost know they will be disappointed and deceived but seem to need some sort of closure to the deception that they participated in, sometimes sadly for years–in the hopes this person would turn around and there would be some sort of a resolution of being together.

Austen often deals with the idea of illusion in Pride and Prejudice, the idea of giving a poor first impression is significant, from Mr. Darcy’s rude dismissal of Elizabeth, to Mrs. Bennet’s gossiping tenacity, and Mr. Collin’s braying condescension–these characters are imprinted on the reader’s experience and we see though–Austen’s intentions behind some of their motivations later with Darcy trying to explain to Lizzie that he has issues talking with strangers (social anxiety), and ties back in somewhat the reality of Mrs. Bennet’s ongoing quest to marry of her daughters bringing her almost to a nervous collapse.  Mr. Collins, not so much–I think Austen was just having fun with the obnoxious parson persona–and I think also sometimes Austen used her own mother’s ailments to inspire Mrs. Bennet’s nerves.

Garber’s article continues on, tackling Austen’s other characters, including Willoughby and Mr. Collins, “Austen had her own Willoughby, it seems — Thomas Lefroy, an Irish political, whose family disapproved of the match–and also perhaps, her own Collins: Harris Bigg-Wither, a man of wealth and education whose proposal of marriage she accepted in December of 1802 and then, the next day refused.)  To note, I’m not really in hundred percent agreement with either of Ms. Garber’s theories here.  Lefroy is long thought to the be the model for Mr. Darcy.  To say, he’s the model for Willoughby is interesting, but I think Austen pulled the model for both Wickham and Willoughby more from the general fear and/or experience of the times.  To my knowledge, Lefroy never had any kind of a scandal of  running off with a girl and then abandoning her.  As for Mr. Bigg-Withers, the Austen’s remained connected to the family, and while he was certainly solvent, I think there are many theories about why Austen refused, most of all through her letters to younger nieces and the importance of marrying for love.  Which Garber points out, was a new-fangled concept in those days. Here is a link to the article, and it is worth a read:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/07/who-gaze-on-the-men-in-jane-austen/533415/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra Sat. 17-Sunday 18 November 1798 — an update on Tom Lefroy.

Per the notes there is a letter missing here between–Saturday October 27th and Sunday the 28th and this letter — the notes also state the manuscript of this particular letter — is untraced since its first publication, possibly sold via auction/sale in 1893.

In the back and forth with writing to her older sister Cassandra who is at Godmersham in Kent, Jane Austen seems to be filling her in and updating her on their mother’s health issues at home in Steventon, “my mother has had no relapse, and Miss Debary comes.”   Again the notes clarify, Miss Debary is to help manage the parsonage while Mary Lloyd was giving birth/having her baby.

Austen next delves into Mrs. Austen’s recent improvements, “She was able to sit up nearly eight hours yesterday and to-day I hope we shall do as much.”  The notes/commentary here state here there were edits or redactions made by Cassandra and later by Lord Bradbourne who inherited it, and likely sold this letter by auction. It is unknown why — I’m presuming perhaps it was a bit of wicked wit regarding her mother’s care-taking that Cassandra censored because Austen wrapped it up with, “So much for my patient — now for myself.”   There is no way to know though.

Austen then relays news about a recent visit from Mrs. Lefroy and an update on Tom Lefroy — often thought to be the inspiration for Mr. Darcy or perhaps some of her other main male characters or love interests.  Apparently Austen was hitting a bit of a wall with his aunt, but Mr. Austen got the update after all,  “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.”  (Underline annotation and spelling are Austen’s own.)

Jane Austen’s interest is prevalent as she continues to tell Cassandra quoting via third party a recent letter Lefroy sent to his aunt about the Austen family, “‘I am very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen’s illness.  It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family — with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest.  But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.'”

Austen seems very particular to be “quoting” Tom’s letter to his aunt — although it’s really uncertain if his aunt, Mrs. Lefroy was really being honest about what Tom wrote or not.

The meaning here via Austen’s own interpretation seems to be he liked the family, but could not visit again and did not want to say he was going to try again–or for all purposes he did not want to get anyone’s hopes up, etc.

Apparently, Jane Austen took Mrs. Lefroy mostly at her word, and writing to Cassandra to confirm, “This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense it it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied.”

Perhaps Austen was recounting a sort of release to her older sister, in confirming that Tom would not return so she was certain whatever small time frame of a relationship they had together was certainly now over. “It will all go exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner.”

And I’m sort of moved by Austen’s use of the words “decline away.”  I’m presuming she is talking about their attraction and feelings that developed only to lapse with the reality of their living situations and perhaps feeling that she held stronger feelings for him,  “There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.”

Austen here seems to be accepting of a couple of things: 1) that perhaps she misread Tom Lefroy’s feelings for her as not being as strong as her feelings for him, or 2) he indeed had feelings for her that were soon dismissed or discarded when he learned of her background and he is not going to visit or tempt himself with a visit to see her.

Continues to tell Cassandra, that his aunt didn’t really help soothe her feelings on the subject, “Mrs. Lefroy made no remarks on the letter, nor indeed say anything about him as relative to me.  Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already.”

Austen here is playing it over and over a bit in her mind — perhaps missing her older sister terribly in trying to maybe talk out her feelings or misgivings about them via this letter.  The rest of Mrs. Leroy’s visit relays nephews and notes about family and mutual friends, before changing the subject.

Seems like Austen is being a little bit cheeky here to her sister, “My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason — I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping.”

Jane Austen continues the letter with household news, butchering, upcoming balls, the purchase of a post-chaise carriage, and also she is liberally sarcastic regarding news around Mary Lloyd’s preparing for child-birth, her health, nursing and other issues.  There is an edge here in the domestic litany with an undertone  of wit — again I think an understanding of relationship and private sayings between sisters.

Austen continues asking about their nephew George, and despite all the local and household news including the birth of a new nephew James-Edward Austen — mainly think this letter was really giving Cassandra the news about Tom Lefroy and her confirmation that she is never to see him again.

Once again back to the notes, the letter that follows this one is also possibly missing. Overall Austen’s feelings or misgivings about Tom seem to weigh heavily on her.

All notes to: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and Edited by Deirde LeFaye, Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra: Steventon Jan. 9-10 1796

This letter  was written over two days, from Jane Austen to her older sister Cassandra. Jane was writing from their home at that time in Steventon, to Cassandra at the home of her fiancee’s family in Kintbury, Newbury.

At the start of this letter Jane Austen is making a little joke about Cassandra’s birthday.  The text is also full of razor sharp observations and opinions.  For example:  “Miss Heathcote is pretty, but not near so handsome as I expected.”  More of these quips  are to be found in Jane Austen’s correspondence, an example of what has become called: “her wicked wit.”

In this letter — most notably there is an immediate tone of sort of owning up to her older sister about a certain young man:

“You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved.  Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”

The reference Jane Austen makes to her: “Irish friend” is to Tom Lefroy.  After becoming a member of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America), and reading many articles from their journals and works of other scholars — there is a pretty standard theory that Tom Lefroy was definitely a love interest of Jane Austen.  Some believe he is the basis or inspiration either entirely or at least partly for the character of Mr. Darcy.

The notation on Cassandra’s “scolding,” seems to note Jane had some explaining to do about her attachment to this young man.  In reading it I find, she is laying out what happened between them for her older sister — so Cassandra will know what she did, and before she hears any news or gossip from anyone else.

Tom Lefroy — or Thomas-Langlois Lefroy, had his education  at Trinity College in Dublin, which was paid for by his great-uncle Benjamin Langlois.  Per the *notes on Jane Austen’s letters: 1) Tom had a very successful legal career in Dublin, advancing to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852, 2) Tom married a sister of a college friend and had a large family, 3) Tom lived in Dublin but also bought an estate named Carrigglas in county Longford where his descendants can still be found today.

According to Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra — her time with Tom Lefroy was limited.

“I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which were are to have a dance at Ashe after all.”  These underline emphasis were by Jane Austen.  There is no way to know if Jane and Tom regretted their parting.  Many scholars and Janeites presume that Tom Lefroy returned to Ireland because he own a debt of his education to his great-uncle and, most likely he already had commitments of work and school.  The general theory being also that he would have had no living if he remained in England and no connections to help him marry either Jane Austen or anyone else.

These are Jane Austen’s last words on Tom before she shifts into discussing news of their brothers.  “He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.”

To clarify, per the notes on Jane Austen’s letters, the Ashe Rectory, about 2 miles from Jane’s home in Steventon, was the home of the Lefroy family. The Lefroy family and the Austens were family friends.  Later there was some intermarriage between the families which is recorded in Jane Austen’s later correspondence, but from the tone here in this letter to her sister, it seems that Jane felt the Lefroys teased Tom so much about the time he spent with her or perhaps his feelings for her — all to be speculated because she really doesn’t go into the gory details — except to document that he backed off.

Doesn’t seem that she is really calling the Lefroy family out about this behavior, although she is duly noting it for her sister — and also relaying that Tom actually avoided her when she visited the Lefroy home — although she doesn’t dwell but moves on to news about their brothers Henry and Charles, news about their careers and personal business, purchases and accounts, relaying news of people met and danced with a balls past and upcoming.  Jane Austen does include this one note to Cassandra about their brother Charles:

“I wish Charles had been at Manydown, because he would have given you some description of my friend, and I think you must be impatient to hear something about him.”  To note, per the notes on the letters of Jane Austen — Manydown was the house or estate of the Bigg-Wither family, also long-time Austen family friends.

Think this is important to note, because Jane Austen seems to be a little wistful that Charles her brother had not met Tom in general, plus she would have liked for Charles to give a description of Tom back to Cassandra. Which leads me to think in this type of large family of that time period, he was a brother worthy of being a confidant.

Her letter shifts back to news about their brother Henry, before this inclusion:

“After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George.  The latter is really very well behaved now, and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light.  He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”  There is no other mention of Tom Lefroy here of their time together, or of his pending departure to Ireland and out of her life.

Emphasis/underline again by Jane Austen. Austen is reporting back to her sister that she did indeed have another visit with Tom. Noting his only fault was a flashy morning coat she did not approve of, and citing his love of Tom Jones by Fielding.  There is a reference here as well to George the younger Lefroy cousin, which the notes on Jane Austen’s letters cites as being not yet 14.  Jane Austen it seems in her correspondence, prefers and dotes on children when they are older, especially her nieces.

The Sunday portion of the letter, notes Charles absence and not hearing from him, as he was one of the Austen brothers that was in the naval forces. It delves into scheduling and Cassandra’s return date missing a visit from the Coopers (per the notes on Jane Austen’s letters the Coopers extended family through the Leighs–Jane Austen’s mother side maternal line of the family), and also notes the departure of Cassandra’s fiancee, Reverend Tom Fowle — noting the name of the ship he was sailing on for the West Indies.  Sadly, Rev. Tom Fowle became ill and died either en route or in the islands and they never married.

This letter concludes with relaying the sad death of a young girl, daughter of the neighboring Beach family, per the notes, on the Letters of Jane Austen –the Beaches were family that lived in Oakley Hall, in the nearby village of Hants–again per the notes, located on a minor road, but formerly a major coaching route from London: 7 miles West of Basingstoke and 2 miles north of Steventon.

*All citations and notes from the following text: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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