Monday, January 28, 2013

Regency House Party

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice being accepted for publication. I still love this book, despite the fact that I’ve assigned it to ninth graders in my class for going on ten years now.

I “use” the book to teach satire, and secondarily to give my kids practice in reading a difficult text. Each year, the text becomes more and more a challenge for my students. Austen’s sentences are quite long, her speech tags are sporadic, and of course there are those aforementioned two hundred years between then and now, and the way we speak has changed. A lot.

Today in class we are writing letters in the style of the period. These may, for some students, be their first experience penning an actual letter—not a note in a card for Grandma, but an actual letter. This should be interesting.

It’s not just the language that’s a stumbling block, though. Increasingly, the bad manners that Austen satirized seem not only trivial but incomprehensible. Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy. So what? Manners are essentially over. When they do pop up among the youth of America these days, it’s sort of a quaint surprise. I usually find myself thanking the young gentleman or lady for thanking me. At any rate, it is harder and harder to convince anyone that the younger Bennet girls are behaving badly. At no point in the story is either girl arrested, for one thing.

Mr. Collins still comes off a fool, thanks in no small part to the mincing, sweaty, spot-on portrayal by David Bamber in the BBC series. But his character seems less farcical than he did before. I think it’s because we don’t recognize farce in the same way. Because it’s been renamed. We call it reality now.

Tune in to almost any reality TV show. What will you see? Farce. If you don’t believe me, watch just one episode of The Soup (it will certainly save time). This past week, Joel McHale showed a clip from Dance Moms which featured some insane woman shouting at pre-teen dancers, giving them a full-on crazy back story for their lyrical dance that involved imagining bombs were dropping all around them. People pay to send their children to this lunatic, then a whole other set of people pay to make a “reality” show out of it, and then even more people pay for ad time…and it’s not in spite of the crazy—it’s because of it.

It’s no wonder many of my students are so flummoxed by the notion of a story which on some level at least is about the importance of showing good sense. But it’s also no wonder so many people are celebrating P&P this week. In a world in which farce is broadcast as reality, the story of the triumph of the sensible Lizzie Bennet, whose good judgment wins out in the end, is a comfort—and a really great escape. I’m not sad to have missed the days of entailments and dowries—and Charlotte being an old maid at twenty-seven (and then marrying Mr. Collins!) But I do enjoy visiting a time in which manners were never an afterthought and no one ever thought of broadcasting the lives of pawn brokers, dance teachers, or bachelors.


  1. I completely agree that we broadcast and label farce as 'reality;' to actually believe that these absurd characters flaunting themselves on television are not acting out preconceived ideas is foolish. However, I disagree that "no one ever thought of broadcasting the lives of pawn brokers, dance teachers, or bachelors." I think in some ways that is exactly what Jane Austen was doing. She watched the world around her, and wrote out exaggerated examples of the people and situations she observed. She wrote stories about everyday life, exposing the follies of reality. However, Austen humorously critiques the flaws instead of glorifying them as we do today.

    Even beyond manners, the protocol of life two hundred years ago seems unbelievable today. I couldn't believe I had to explain to high schoolers why Lydia's running away was so scandalous, and why she must marry Mr Wickham. It seems that the ways of a world two hundred years past are forever lost to us today. Perhaps as our defense here in the states, we can call upon a quote from Downton Abbey, “Yes we do [understand tradition], we just don’t give it power over us."

    Sorry for the rant. I love this blog! Thanks for reminding me that I must watch the BBC Pride and Prejudice tomorrow to celebrate Miss Austen.

    1. Nice quote! ;) I think part of what makes Downton so compelling is the peek behind the scenes at all levels of that life. The thing about Jane is that it was the all landed-gentry channel all the time. I'll bet poor old Hill of Longbourn could tell some stories, but Austen never gave her a voice.

      Imagine having to work for Mrs. Bennet! :0

      You're so right about the "protocols of life"--like when Lydia gets married and tells Jane she has to walk behind her now! The idea of walking in line outside the military is a completely foreign idea.