Thursday, January 8, 2009

Women's Work (Noontime Book Chat)

When I got pregnant for the first time, eleven years into our marriage, I commented to Ron that this would be a heck of a way for a newly married couple to continue getting to know each other. I was uncharacteristically faint, and we both agreed that this explained a lot about nineteenth-century attitudes towards women as “the weaker sex.”

The section of The Darcys and the Bingleys describing Jane and Elizabeth’s almost-simultaneous first pregnancies is my favorite part of the book. It has amusing detail, like that Bingley’s hair, the morning after his wedding, was “considerably more mussed than it usually was—which for Charles Bingley, was saying quite a lot. He had that dashing young ‘I am so exciting, my hair is trying to escape from my head, and it is a hopeless cause’ unintentional style that was so adorable.” I sometimes see this style on young men in my classes, and on the college swimmer who sits in front of me at symphony rehearsals.

I also like what Mr. Bennet says about his wife, despite the fact that Austen’s picture of their union needs no explanation, set as it is in an era when marriages were arranged for the joining of property, with the feelings of the young people considerably less important. Still, it’s a balm to the modern soul to hear him say to Elizabeth:
“You do not mean to imply that I married a fluttering imbecile with a chronic nerve condition? No, I confess I had almost forgotten it myself that she underwent a particular transformation when Jane came out, and suddenly she had the daunting prospect of five marriageable daughters who were in desperate need of prospects. And see as how I was only a very reluctant aid in the matter, so attached to you all as I was, it is amazing that she accomplished so much in so little time.”
Maybe it’s just a balm to my maternal soul. Are there any mothers reading this who ever feel that their husbands aren’t appreciating them quite enough?

As J. Kaye noted in yesterday’s chat, another fine amusement in this section is watching Darcy compete with Bingley for where their wives will spend their “confinements” (the final months of pregnancy, when a nineteenth-century woman “in a delicate condition” did not go out in public), and whose baby will be born first, as if the men have any control over this. When they decide to have a contest in order to determine where the confinements will take place, their dialogue is as quick as their conclusion, which is, of course, that “we will decide as men and then return to our wives, who will promptly ignore us and announce their own decision, which was probably made months ago….”

In the south this kind of female character was traditionally called the “steel magnolia,” like the 80’s movie of the same name, and in the present day I think you see less of these characters. Could it be that this is largely because young women don’t wear corsets, which (as Elizabeth Swann notes) can make a woman faint, most women are no longer more or less continuously pregnant from 20 to 40, and a woman today doesn’t necessarily have to manipulate a man in order to assert authority?

And yet. How many of the book bloggers you know are women who have the time to blog because they’re home with their children, at least part-time? (I’d wager on Maw Books Blog, 2 Kids and Tired Books, A Mom’s Book Blog, and Booking Mama, at least, just from the names). When you want to schedule a play date or ask another parent to take your child home from some event, do you ask to talk to the other child’s mother? (I do, because mostly it’s the mothers I know who keep the family calendar.) If you’re in church and you hear someone crying in the nursery, do your eyes meet those of other women who are wondering if they should excuse themselves and go check? (I once met the eyes of a man, because he was the primary caretaker for his children--but I remember the event, because it was unusual, in my experience.) How much has “women’s work” changed since Jane Austen’s time—is my enjoyment of the section about pregnancy at least partly due to the unchanging nature of the task?

Come back here tomorrow and join us at J. Kaye's Book Blog for our duet of conclusion about reading The Darceys and the Bingleys.

7 comments:

Marsha Altman said...

I'm not actually a mother, but I do KNOW a lot of mothers, certainly, so I just sort of wrote what I figured what women would want to hear but also be somewhat in time period (even if I made the mistake of using the word "pregnancy" which they wouldn't have used). Also it was important to give Jane a backbone, because she never has one, and she deserves one.

Technically the book is divided into two sections, as this was the ending to the first story as I wrote it as a short story, though most people seem to see it as three stories when they review it because the middle part happens a year and a half later (the marriages are in 1803 and the births in 1805). Really I hope you spend some time tomorrow on the third section, because I am rather proud of it even if people didn't like it, but it involves a character people are set up not to like, so reviewers spend less time with it than the nuptials.

BTW, the contract just came back, so books 2 and 3 are official and set for releases in Fall 2009!

Jeanne said...

Yes, yes, Jane deserves a backbone. I didn't mention how that gratified me.
And indeed, I'm talking about the third section tomorrow, and how it has what J. Kaye has been longing for--drama!
Congratulations on books 2 and 3! Good timing for anyone who was meaning to get around to reading TDATB this week. Now they have a reason for reading it by fall...

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Your paragraph about how it's always the mothers struck me today, because yesterday, AJ asked me why it's only mothers who volunteer in his classroom. My first answer was that the dad's are at work. But of course many of the mothers work too. And AJ knows his dad works at home, just like his mother does. So why is it only the mothers? It's partly self-perpetuating, I think. Mr. Spy doesn't feel comfortable volunteering at school because no other dads do. But to move back on topic, I've been enjoying your discussion of this book. I remember reading a dreadful "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice some years ago (I've blotted the title and author from my memory) and had given up on them entirely. But your descriptions might make me reconsider.

Jeanne said...

Harriet--Self-perpetuating, yeah...for over a century!

There are some dreadful Austen "sequels," but this isn't one of them; in some ways, it's more of an homage. As I think I mentioned on Monday, I like Shannon Hale's Austenland for its satire of one extreme aspect of "Janeite" culture.

J. Kaye Oldner said...

I think it's funny you should mention this, because Steve and I are noticing that roles are changing again. Like you said, it's the mother in charge of the household. What I have noticed lately is fathers doing the grocery shopping and caring for the kids. Steve and I didn't start out as a traditional family. Mostly because, he was attending LSU. I worked a fourteen hour day and cared for two children. Don't get me wrong. He helped, but school was priority. Now Steve does the shopping and cooking.

So when I see a man out with a young child, I take notice. Steve takes notice when hubbies do the shopping and I am please to say I see more and more. I am thrilled to see fathers take on a hands-on role in the family.

Jeanne said...

Fathers with children do get a hard time on occasion, though. Ron talks to me sometimes about the suspicious looks he gets simply because of his gender.
We taught Sunday school at our church for 4 or 5 years; he taught the preschoolers. Then he was required to go to some kind of session about preventing sexual abuse, and there was talk about always having two adults in the Sunday school room with the children. That was about the time we decided it was someone else's turn to teach.

lemming said...

I don't trust sequels written by someone other than the original author. I've thumbed through (in all seriousness) a half dozen sequels to P & P and none of them "did" for me what Austen does every time I reread P & P.