Do Women Really Want All Men To Be Nice?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Do Women Really Want All Men To Be Nice?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Do Women Really Want All Men To Be Nice?
New books dissected over email.
June 9 2004 12:25 PM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Meghan,

Did you hear the one about the alien who landed on Earth and immediately read The Jane Austen Book Club? "But they told us there would be two genders!" (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) Grigg has girly eyelashes and a rug with poppies along the edges, that the group—again with the vaguely pomo "we"—recognizes as the one "from the Sundance catalogue as something we ourselves had wanted." He is the youngest of four children, with three older sisters; and twice within the span of two pages, we get the phrase "If he had been a girl." Once, to wheedle something out of his dad, Grigg imitated his sisters, by blinking his eyelashes and pouting his lips. His most masculine act of self-assertion is his use of store-bought crusts on his otherwise homemade cheesecake. If we are not meant to think of Grigg as feminine, Fowler is a writer of no control whatsoever. (As if we missed it, Fowler has a pre-pubescent Grigg overhear his father say, "He's more of a girl than any of the girls.")

As a devoted girly-man myself, I have no big issue with Grigg, though such a peculiarly distaff hero did make me wonder: Why is masculinity—and I use the term advisedly—so conspicuously absent from the pages of The Jane Austen Book Club? When Sylvia's husband gets into a fistfight with a lout who has manhandled Sylvia, I hate to admit it, I was thinking, hey, a little bloodlust might do the narrative some good here (in the same way I leaf through the Sundance catalog when things get ugly on The Sopranos). But what happens? Daniel, dressed in a parka and "après ski boots," slides around goofily on the patches of ice underfoot. "Fat as a Santa in his big dark parka, there he was, fighting for her honor, but never managing to land a single punch. Windmilling, slipping, falling. Laughing." Ha ha ha. Boys will be … boys?

I recently became re-obsessed with the poet Philip Larkin, who was perpetually accused of portraying life as a dreary, largely eventless shuffle toward the grave. He finally retorted in an interview: "I'd like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time—do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance?" It is as silly to call event-crammed books "masculine" as it is to call books light on incident "feminine." I think you've hit it on the head, Meghan: Books have to strike readers as true to life, all else be damned. The one convincingly young woman in the book is Allegra, but she's gay and brings with her no similarly vivid young man into the story. Daniel deserts Sylvia, but is a philanderer in the faintest possible way, and eventually crawls back to Sylvia, all apologetic whimper. Some men are surely, gratefully, like this. (Are all men like this? Would we be grateful if they were?) The lack of a single, convincingly masculine presence in the book wreaks its worst damage on her female characters, who remain fatally unsharpened as a result. Where is the heterosexual fire in this book, suppressed or otherwise? Beyond garden-variety peevishness, does anyone's color ever rise?

The phrase you used was right on the nose: Complacency pervades this novel, blunting any pretense to Austenian irony. Meanwhile, the economic insecurity of women pervades Austen's work; it is a brutal, unflinching and pitiless sensibility, if you think about it. (You're dead on about the episode with the Bingley sisters.) This was put best, unsurprisingly, by Auden, who wrote "Beside her Joyce seems as innocent as grass," adding

It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of "brass,"
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

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OK, so TJABC is a standard-issue post-feminist procedural, on its way to selling a zillion or so copies. Godspeed. But I picked up Persuasion—oh, Book Club, must I confess it? I have never read Persuasion!—and immediately felt lifted out of the morass, of silly labels like masculine, feminine, pomo, premo. Ah, the company of genius! If there is such a thing as cosmic machisma, this woman had it in spades:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynchall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest that never failed.

And there, my friends, in the very first sentence, the convincing portrait of male vanity—a flint from which to produce living sparks—we never get from Fowler. Meghan—shall we talk Allegra and danger tomorrow?

Yours,
Steve

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor. Stephen Metcalf is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.