A brief summary for those not in the know, the romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy goes a little something like this:
(socially awkward man who doesn’t like dancing in public)
No-one is good enough for me.
Ms. Elizabeth Bennet
(forthright woman who refuses to be a damsel)
Marry that proud man? On yer bike.
(They change their minds.)
We’re all up to scratch then.
Writing is often, if not always, a product of the times in which it’s written. But when it’s good, it works in the opposite direction too, urging readers to think about the times in which they live. Austen allows her readers room for their own intelligence and fantasies to take flight, enabling each generation to see themselves reflected back from her pages.
And don’t we all love to catch a glimpse of ourselves, sometimes?
Mr. Darcy starts out as one of those, “Nah mate, I’m more of a boobs man” kind of guys, except with slightly more élan. Austen rightly mocks him for his superficial assessments and his haughty social awkwardness: for being one of those who look but do not truly see women for who they are.
It will take an unfolding of wit, a loosening of constraints and time for this to happen. On both sides.
Similarly, sparked by the public nature of the ballroom gaze (the Regency equivalent to any nightclub or bar in the pre-Tinder eras), Lizzie is shown, like most of us, to be a bit of a judgmental bitch. That’s why we love her. As outspoken as her hemlines are muddied, she begins the novel by deferring to public opinion: never date the guy who refuses to join the conga line at a wedding, the selfish grouch.
Austen instructs by polarity, by the whips and scorns of irony and wit;
the what not to dos guiding and moulding the to dos;
the lessons learnt from the lives lived boldly and badly,
or timidly and under the veil of false pride and haunted tongue.
“Despise me if you dare”
When it comes to the female gaze, Austen’s modernity lies in the fact that Lizzie doesn’t just remain watched, smiling from the sidelines. She engages, provocatively. Game set match. In this way, she counters John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing that women can only be the passive female objects of the ‘desiring’ male gaze; “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
Miss Caroline Bingley, the spoilt rich bitch of the tale, is the epitome of conscious scopophilia ( the “primordial wish for pleasurable looking”). That she renders herself scopophilic with the sole intention of capturing Darcy (arguably, a vital sexual tool in a society where attracting a husband is an economic necessity) is something which provokes a negative reaction in him : “you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking…I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.” It’s a game most of us have played, but it’s not one Austen suggests ultimately leads to character-led connubial bliss.
By reacting to Darcy with a certain lack of censorship, around him and his friends, and by challenging him to “despise me if you dare,” Lizzie ultimately paves the way to letting herself be seen, not as an ornament to prance round a drawing room when books have lost their interest, but as an equal in wit, fertile conversation and a probing mind. In this, she is the opposite of her sister Jane, whose beauty naturally draws men’s attention without any effort, but whose shy smiles cannot match the effervescence of her sister’s laughter, the certain sharp sparkles of her tongue.
For anyone who bites theirs often, who smiles when they would rather frown, cry, scream, and is frustrated by themselves doing so, the ‘what would Lizzie do’ school of thought is a tonic.
As she starts to alter her perception of Darcy, the novel as a whole starts to focus on more intimate ways of seeing. When Lizzie travels to Darcy’s country estate, Pemberley, and gazes at a portrait of him, the mechanics of the gaze break down, ceasing to be exclusively male or female. Lizzie becomes both the spectator and the object and, ironic though it may be, is allowed to finally see herself through her own eyes, as well as through Darcy’s.
Essentially, Austen reminds us to just get over ourselves.
It is only when we do this, that we can let others in. The moment we start to re-value people from, “they’re fit, worth a few, and have a great pad, I’d like to shag them” to, “they’re an incredible, articulate, kind person, I’d like to shag them” then society, and the individual, wins. It isn’t necessarily a narrative that the likes of dating apps have fostered. Bring back video profiles? À la Smack The Pony?
When Lizzie finally accepts Darcy’s proposal, although the reader can see the overjoyed expression on Darcy’s face, Lizzie does not, she is unable to look. When it comes to true, heart-felt declarations of love, the politics of looking are, essentially, redundant. It is here that the heart sees clearly: sees all.
The female gaze is ‘political protagonism’
Pride & Prejudice is, in one sense, concerned with men changing to please the women they love. Perhaps this is why the novel has remained so popular throughout time, it’s a worn narrative, but persistent nonetheless. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that, just as Elizabeth is only able to do so much to express her growing love and desire for Darcy (aka gaze the shit out of him) due to female modesty and propriety, our own era’s current cultural psyche has still not resolved how a women can express desire, without being, to some extent, vilified for it.
In her 2017 TIFF lecture, Jill Soloway remarked that the female gaze is ‘political protagonism’, that isn’t afraid to question ‘toxic masculinity’ and ask, ‘when are we gonna be done with it?’
How and where is the personal political these days?
I can’t help but here think of the Instagram account, @girlgazeproject, founded in February 2016 by photographer and TV host Amanda de Cadenet to push back against “the cultural projections and traditional gender roles imposed upon girls from the outside world, media and culture.”
Technological distortion is now something that extends past traditional fashion magazines to girls manipulating their own photos for social media. So, de Cadenet along with Inez van Lamsweerde, Amber Valletta, Lynsey Addario, Sam Taylor-Johnson and Collier Schorr curate images by young female-identifying photographers who “determine their own identity, sexuality, and beauty.”
For her 2016 book American Girls, Nancy Jo Sales interviewed more than 200 girls and found that the most significant influence on young women’s lives is the sexist and ‘hypersexualized’ culture of social media. It foments (female) anxiety about physical appearance that is highly conducive to ‘self-objectification.’ The danger of such anxieties were noted recently by Essena O’Neill, the Australian teenager who had more than half a million Instagram followers before she quit the platform, describing it as “contrived perfection made to get attention.”
Just as Austen was able to influence the way women saw themselves, by writing nuanced and flawed characters, so women authoring their own pictures to challenge sexist depictions of beauty is, arguably, a way to make the female gaze ‘political protagonist’: a way to challenge being seen rather than looked at.
The dawning of the age of
the cult of romance?
While the patriarchal and economic structures of the time had a profound effect on both male and female behaviour – marrying for romance rather than money was a novel concept in Austen’s age – Darcy eventually chose romantic individualism over social order in deciding to marry Elizabeth. It is a fairytale happy ending. ‘Romance’ epitomised.
The modern Western psyche
follows the cult of romantic love
in search of spiritual nourishment.
We are, arguably, in the age where romance has overtaken spirituality. Where once people looked to religion for transcendence, unity, meaning; now, romantic love has been assigned the perfection once considered the sanctuary of the divine. We worship at the cult of romance more than we bend our knees to revere an unknown deity, or hug an oak tree. Both are, in their own ways, pesky.
We expect our partners to fulfil all our needs, if they don’t?
We are also, arguably, in an age where austerity and the distinctions between the wealthy and the poor are ever more marked, but our desires, our greeds are exacerbated by the deification of the upgrade, the insta-brunches and the bling, the suga-daddies. With the pressures our lovers are under, with the ability to have someone at the swipe of a finger swipe you with their finger, will we all just become perennial drifters, or serial adulterers? Will we revert to marriages as a socio-economic, pragmatic institution, and see a rise of medieval courtesans as our true loves?
Austen is as relevant as ever then:
marriage as passion or pragmatism?
Believing in ‘the one’ may makes our lives easier by imbuing them with a greater significance, however there is no ‘one’ that will answer all questions, fulfil all our longings, do all of the dishes (unless you ask kindly). Austen knew that good relationships take work. By making the journey to them arduous, perhaps she shows us that there isn’t a ‘one’, just the one you choose. Or the one who looks at you the longest. The weirdo.