The disturbing thing about these novels, and presumably about the women reading them (and an odd collection of tshirts, see left) is that they rely on the fantasy of finding that perfect man (namely, Mr. Darcy) to solve one's problems (The "problem"? Being Single.) I had a long talk recently with my oldest friend about the stigma she faces as a single woman. I can relate, 10 years married and in my thirties, people are always wondering when we're going to "start having kids." People get so ansty when one doesn't follow society's expectations. But, anyway, back to these books - it's so odd society is experiencing this sort of insane trend, whereby any women would would want to be transported to the 1800s, when marriage was more of a business proposal to desperately save oneself from abject poverty!
In Regency England, the search for Mr. Right may have taken place at candle-lit balls and in well-appointed drawing rooms, but it was not a game. As Austen wrote, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor." Inheritance laws meant that women could not inherit from their fathers, and women lived in real fear of having their homes pulled out from under them if they did not secure a husband of means, who hopefully would not die overseas in the Army, a fate that Jane's sister Cassandra's fiancé suffered. Even if women did marry well, to a clergyman for instance, nothing was secure. Upon his retirement or death, his family would be turned out of their home, as happened to Austen's father when he gave up his Hampshire parish. These are the threats and fears that drive Austen's heroines.
I'm reading Howard's End right now, and wondering if after my Eliot and Forster experience, I dare return to Austin? But from what I understand, Austin is just as critical of accepted social norms as these other two estimable writers. When independent Margaret Schlegel tells her sister about her marriage proposal in Howard's End, the sister breaks down in tears. "Don't!" she cries (just what I was thinking) - don't make this decision out of desperation. But Margaret, called a girl by some and an aging woman by others, is having a crisis of property that could be solved by marriage.
One of the great pleasures of female life in the 21st century, especially if you're of the class to which Austen belonged and into which she sunk her sharp teeth, is the possibility of earning your own living, of not having to land a man to survive financially, of no longer having to wear your need for a husband on your sleeve ... or tote bag or bumper.
She's not saying we shouldn't dream about Colin Firth, diving into the water, and better yet, walking out again (repeatedly even, like Bridget Jones) but to leave the fantasy at that, and appreciate our realities.