Imagine Austen vs. War on Women


David Bamber as the sanctimonious Mr. Collins

One political development I never saw coming has been the extreme right’s all-out assault on reproductive rights. It began with the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the systematic attempts by GOP-run state legislatures to first discourage abortions (say, through mandated ultrasounds) and then to close down abortion clinics through various dishonest maneuvers (so-called TRAP laws). Then there were attempts to restrict birth control, sometimes through religious organizations or religious owners of large corporations refusing to allow their employees to have access to free prevention, sometimes through legislatures passing “personhood amendments” that declare zygotes to be people while labeling certain birth control procedures as tantamount to abortion/murder.

There are ways to go about reducing the number of abortions, say through better access to birth control and family planning. Too many religious ideologues, however, are more interested in being righteous than in finding social solutions.

I found myself thinking of these people over the weekend while rereading Pride and Prejudice and watching reactions to the sexual escapades of Lydia and Wickham.

The responsible parties in the book—which is to say the sensible Bennets, Darcy, and the Gardiners—are interested in cleaning up Lydia’s mess, which threatens not only her future but that of her sisters as well. Then there are the judgmental moralists, such as Mary and Mr. Collins.

Note how they cannot even acknowledge that Lydia is a human being. Here’s Mary, who parrots sermon talking points and sees her sister as nothing more than a moral example:

Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.

And here’s Mr. Collins, smugly lording it over the family of the woman who rejected his marriage proposal:

Be assured, my dear sir, that Mrs. Collins and myself sincerely sympathize with you and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. No arguments shall be wanting on my part that can alleviate so severe a misfortune—or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others the most afflicting to a parent’s mind. The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this.

And later, after a marriage has been patched together:

I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the rector of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ 

We have a choice in how to respond to our present-day fundamentalists (and those politicians who cower before them). There’s the Elizabeth’s silent response to Mary:

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply.

And there’s Mr. Bennet’s sarcastic response to Collins:

That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!

Mr. Bennet gets a little revenge on the clergyman, however. It’s a tactic which, while it might not work on true believers, at least could work on those who cynically pander to such believers for their votes. In informing Collins of Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy, Mr. Bennet adds a twist, knowing that Collins assiduously curries favor with the rich and powerful:

I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.

Imagine how this will tie Collins into knots. Imagine what it would do to some of today’s political class.


Further note: Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that blood is not being drawn in the decorous exchanges in Jane Austen novels. A further example: After Lydia has run off, Collins all but kicks the Bennet family when they’re down, noting how glad he is now that he didn’t marry into their family. Citing his noble patroness, he writes in his letter

you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.

Mr. Bennet gives as good as he gets. By pointing out in the letter mentioned above that Darcy will now be his son-in-law, he is essentially trumping Collins’ card with a higher one. “Who is in the catbird seat now?” I hear him saying. I heard someone compare Jane Austen novels recently to those kung fu movies where there is simmering tension waiting to explode at any moment. Eventually, the kicks and jabs come out.

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