A herd of teal deer

NYT: And what’s the best marriage plot novel ever?

Eugenides: “The Portrait of a Lady,” by Henry James. Unlike the comedies of Austen, where the heroines all get married at the end, this book presents an anti-marriage plot. Old Mr. Touchett gives Isabel Archer a huge inheritance in order to secure her independence. The irony, however, is that the money ends up attracting the wrong suitor. James fills the book with the traditional energies of a marriage plot. You’ve got Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton courting Isabel, too, but here the heroine makes the wrong choice (the connoisseur!), and the question isn’t who will she marry but how will she survive her marriage. It’s much darker than anything Austen did, and it leads straight to the moral ambiguities and complexities of the modern novel.

Eugenides: A book by a dude! Dudes are the ones whose careers and whole lives were most affected by marriage in the past, am I right? Dudes, dudes, dudes! PS suck it, Jane Austen.

… Dude, Eugenides. Was this necessary?

(via sarahreesbrennan)

Did he seriously say it’s better because, “unlike the comedies of Austen,” it’s dark and edgy and manly wah wah wah? i.e., because it’s not a comedy? He’s not even talking about the particular artists, here, he’s comparing different genres; comedy is light and fluffy and trivial, tragedy is deep and meaningful. Ugh ugh ugh.

AND it’s particularly bizarre because - okay, Austen’s novels end with the protagonists making good marriages that will either probably or certainly be happy because that’s the kind of book she was writing (“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can”). However, the same protagonists are bombarded with blinking neon signs about the many, many ways marriage can turn out. Just looking at “Pride and Prejudice,” the sparkliest of them all, here are the major couples:

  • Mr and Mrs Bennet. She was beautiful and lively, and he only realized what she was like after the marriage. He quickly lost all affection for her and spent the rest of their marriage either ignoring her or playing nasty mind-games on her. She’s extravagant, rather nasty, and stuck with the sole responsibility of planning their children’s futures, which are extremely precarious because they didn’t have a son.
  • Mr and Mrs Gardiner. They’re young, happy, and prosperous. They take his nieces under their wing.
  • Mr and Mrs Hurst. They’re fashionable but not terribly well-off, appear to be mutually indifferent, and live off her brother.
  • Charlotte and Mr Collins. She doesn’t even like men or marriage. She marries out of financial desperation; he just wants an appropriate wife. She manages him as well as she can, and seems happier in charge of her own house than as a poor, dependent, spinster daughter. It’s suggested it won’t last. (She’s pregnant at the end, and nobody wants to think too much about that.)
  • Lydia and Wickham. They run away together because she’s sixteen and wants an adventure, and he habitually preys on young girls. Lydia is too stupid to take up Darcy’s offer of extricating her from the situation, so he has to bribe Wickham into marrying her. Lydia and Wickham quickly end up disliking each other, depend on the charity of their wealthy relations, and drift aimlessly from house to house after the end of the war downgrades his income.
  • Jane and Bingley. They’re well-suited and happy, if vulnerable to outside influence.
  • Darcy and Elizabeth. They’re very happy, minor inconveniences and all.

Seriously, it’s not as if she’s avoiding the existence of terrible marriages; terrible marriages are everywhere in Austen, along with okayish marriages, disturbing but not altogether dysfunctional marriages, happy marriages, whatever (there are even happy marriages that are still kind of terrible, like John and Fanny Dashwood’s). She just doesn’t choose to focus on them - and why should tragic misfortune be more worthy of attention?

Even if it were, shouldn’t he be comparing James to authors who actually wrote about that? I mean, if he were comparing James to, say, Emily Eden’s “The Semi-Attached Couple,” which does romanticize a really awful marriage (though in an entertaining way), that might make some sense. But why is he talking about Austen’s irrelevant-to-the-discussion courtship plots and not, say, George Eliot? Anne Brontë? Fanny Trollope?


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