The Feminism and Queerness of Jane Austen (1): Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice

This is the first of two essays about the feminism and queerness I find in two of Jane Austen best loved novels – Sense and Sensibility, and in this one, I will be exploring the character of Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. I write this because apart from one 6 year old tumblr post which notes it, I have never found a discourse on her character that fully recognises that Charlotte Lucas is aromantic and asexual, and, therefore, queer. However, I must also own that I am neither aro or ace (aromantic or asexual), so if you are, and you are reading this and I’ve got something horrendously wrong – comments are open for correction!

 

‘Oh, Lizzy!  do anything rather than marry without affection.’ – Jane Bennett

Pride and Prejudice is a story about marriage, and the business (the social and financial contract and exchange) of marriage. In telling the story of the Bennett sisters, and Elizabeth particularly, it examines a society largely dependent on mens choices, the ramifications of their choices, and how those choices affect women’s ability to be married well (within that context), and married safely. It is set in a society where ideas of romantic love are at odds with the reality of the business of marriage.

As with Sense and Sensibility, it is also a story of the relationship between sisters (both filial and by friendship): but whereas the Dashwood sisters in the former lose their social station with the death of their father, the Bennett sisters social station was lower than it might have been; not because of their Father (for their Father was a gentleman) – but because of their mother who whilst not poor, was not of equal rank to Mr Bennett.

The Bennett sisters lived in the tension of a rigid class system, and their options for marriage were defined accordingly. On the one hand, despite their Father’s rank, no male heir meant no financial status. Inheritance laws meant that their Fathers estate would be entailed away. On the other, they were socially defined by their Mothers’ lower rank and status, and, therefore, of very little social worth.

The situation of Charlotte Lucas is very little different. She is the daughter of Sir William Lucas who, whilst titled, earned his peerage after becoming mayor – he was ‘new’ money, too new to be considered in the same class as sons of historical inheritance. Whilst he has amassed a respectable amount, his fortune is not a large one. Unlike Mr Bennett, however, he has a son to leave his estate to, but his fortune is not large enough to leave a dowry for his daughters. Charlotte, who is around 6 years older than her friend, has limited options: she must marry, or she will otherwise be a burden to her parents, and then her brother. She is respectable,  but she has neither dowry, nor handsomeness enough, to tempt men of Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy’s class.

By every measure, she is the match of her friends’ wit and intelligence. She is jovial, wry and not averse to chiding her friends sometime heated convictions:  she teases Elizabeth in front of Mr Darcy, goading her into playing the piano and singing. And she scrutinises Elizabeth’s thinking, eliciting from her headstrong friend an admission that it was Mr Darcy’s comments on her appearance that set her mind against him. She is remarkably self possessed and resourceful: she actively and cognitively chooses Mr Collins, recognising an opportunity in her friends refusal of a man neither holds in particular esteem.

Charlotte see’s the same vanity and pomposity in Mr Collins that Elizabeth does, she also sees what Elizabeth would never have found: an opportunity to be herself; for though Jane is Elizabeth’s’ social conscious, it is Charlotte who is Elizabeth’s intellectual ally and female mentor.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”

There is an essay in the New Yorker by Joshua Rothman from 2013, on the ‘problem’ of Charlotte Lucas’ choice of husband, which I found whilst looking for essays on this subject. It explores the idea that Charlotte Lucas does not seem to get the happy ending in marriage that Elizabeth and Jane do. It examines some of the many layered reasons for Charlotte’s decision, giving a nuanced look at both her pragmatism as well as the economic and social context in which the characters lives are led. And it respects how crucial Charlotte is, not just in the context of the relationship with her friend, but how critical she is to the narrative of the story. However Rothman, like Elizabeth, see’s Charlotte’s choice through the lens of Charlotte’s intellectual intelligence, and in relation to her husband’s stupidity. He concludes:

There’s something miraculous in people—a resilience, an infiniteness—which can survive constraint, transformation, reversal, and anything else imaginable. The thread doesn’t have to be broken. This never-ending pulse of personality is what gives Lizzy and Darcy the courage to change, and it’s what makes it possible, I think, to hope for Charlotte’s happiness. People, Austen seems to say, are not so easily dominated by their own lives. Charlotte will always be a little apart from her circumstances. Her life will go on. – Joshua Rothman (emphasis mine)

In ascribing Charlotte’s choice as Elizabeth does, he sees only what Elizabeth sees – a constraining circumstance, albeit one that her abilities and capabilities would undoubtedly allow her to survive. But it is not this that sets Charlotte apart, and it is not this which allows Charlotte to see what her friend – and Rothman – cannot. Charlotte does not view marriage to Mr Collins as a constraint – indeed nor does Elizabeth find her friend constrained when she eventually goes to visit her now married friend. She finds instead that her friend is building for herself a life where she can spend the majority of her time most contendly.

Charlotte, who had once declared that it would be better not to know very much of a spouses faults before marrying them, knew completely what Mr Collins faults before making her decision.  Unlike Elizabeth, this did not prevent her from seeing marriage to Mr Collins as an opportunity. She is older, wiser than her friend – she has learnt the value of reflection.  Charlotte is thus able to use all the faults of the man to her advantage; his obsequious devotion to Lady Catherine de Bourge, and his vanity: Elizabeth finds these being actively, yet carefully nurtured. So that whilst being “Mrs Collins” brought certain obligations – it also afforded ample opportunity for the quietness and solitude that Charlotte sought.

“I see what you are feeling” Charlotte says to Elizabeth: and she does – she see’s her friend’s perplexity. But she is also 6 years older, and that age gap is crucial; Charlotte has already seen friends of her own age navigate the same system as they and their parents sought the best possible contract – and men sought out suitable wives, and preferably ones with money. Charlotte is older than Elizabeth, because the disadvantage of having neither dowry or looks has left her behind. Yet she has forged a close relationship with Elizabeth and in no sense considers herself superior. When she says that happiness in marriage is as much, if not more, to do with chance, those words are borne of experience, of seeing other friends whose romantic hopes had come face to face with the reality of marriage.

“I am not romantic you know. I never was. ” Charlotte Lucas

Charlotte is far too honest to say that to her friend simply for reassurance. She says it plainly, without excitement, for she is speaking a truth of herself she might otherwise not have voiced: she simply does not harbour romantic longings. She enjoys, indeed revels, in her friendships where there is intellectual equality, but has no need of romance to satisfy her emotionally. She, alone of her friends, can see more clearly that for all the emotional longings for romance that are satisfied in marriage, there are as many are not: yet she is never disturbed by this. She knows it as simply as she knows that the sun will rise each day.

And whilst Jane is chosen by Mr Bingley (who was then dissuaded by his sisters and Darcy), and Elizabeth is chosen by Mr Darcy, (whom she initially rejects) – it is Charlotte who is able to create the opportunity to make her own choice.  Charlotte does not choose Mr Collins because she aromantic and asexual, but being so affords Charlotte the opportunity to choose marriage, without sacrificing her sense of self. She does not encourage Mr Collins to be away from the vicarage because she is aromantic and asexual, but because she has no need of romantic or sexual intimacy, she can create space where she can live very much as she chooses. Indeed, in a world where women have no real autonomy, Charlotte is a compelling character: one who is able to create space to live according to her own needs.

In understanding Charlotte as aromantic and asexual, we meet more fully a remarkable woman – and we are no longer perplexed, as Elizabeth was, by her choice. Instead we find someone whose choice neither constrains, nor defines, her; and in a world where men’s choices dominate, we find a woman who chooses for herself, and remains herself without compromise. And instead of the hope of a happy ending for her – we have the assurance of it.

 

 

 

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The Secret Life of an Old Book – A Snapshot of Two Women

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1910 Edition, The Religious Tract Society

It is August, and the sun is high in the sky. On the Norfolk coast, children run in and out of the lapping waves, sand clinging to their legs and cheeks and hair. Their stomachs are full of ice cream and candy floss, the sugar of the seaside treats and the salt of the sea clinging to their lips.

I loved the feeling of the hot sun on the nape of my neck and the cold water lapping against my knees, or soaking in to my swimsuit, bright blue with huge white flowers – I would lay on my stomach searching for shells and the oddly bright coloured stones which I loved to collect, though would invariably leave at my Grandparents house when we came home at the end of our stay.

Yet as much as I loved those hot days of sand and sea and salt and sugar, I loved the rainy days more, because those were the days my Father and I would go in the car and explore the plethora of second hand book shops that were dotted across the villages and small towns of North Norfolk. We would rarely buy anything (that wasn’t the point, and money was too hard to come by); the joy was in slowly, painstakingly searching through the rows of books, in shops that smelt of old leather, beeswax polish and tea.

There is something spiritual in finding and opening a book which has been un-read and unopened for decades – the scent of the paper, the way the words seem to reach out happily to you like old friends as they enjoy being read for the first time in too long; how they ache to give up their stories and lay against your hands like content dogs against the caress of their owners.

These days I can rarely explore a good second hand book shop as luxuriously as I once did in my childhood, but my Father still has an eye for a fascinating old book and this evening brought be a real treasure: a copy of Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyon.

This particular edition was published in 1910 by The Religious Tract Society (which later became the Lutterworth Press). The forward is a mini-history of both Pilgrims Progress through its various editions in Bunyan’s lifetime, and the RTS itself. The text for this edition (“…presented to readers of every class…”) is ‘as it stood when Bunyan’s death removed all possibility’ of further revisions by the author. And the second part has, it says, been ‘carefully collated’ with the 1686 second edition, which was the final edition to be printed in Bunyan’s life (the third edition being published in 1690, two years after his death).

What makes this book special is the clue that it contains, in a small handwritten inscription on the inside cover, to the journey which it has been on through in the hands of its previous owner or owners. As a child in those old shops in Norfolk, it was always those hand written inscriptions which fascinated me as much as the books themselves. Who were these people who had written these brief messages, and who were the people to whom they had been written? What had their lives been like? What had these books meant to them in their lifetimes?

This particular inscription reads:

Beatrice Cooper

with kind wishes from her mistress –

Dunston Lodge

Christmas 1911

And in the bottom left had corner, a Bible reference – Genesis 12, vs 2.

Here we have two women – one of some rank, yet nameless; and one who was a servant of the nameless mistress, but who has a name, an identity. I wonder at how the one came to give to give the book to the other – a Christmas present to a servant: was it a gesture of kindness and affection? Or the act of a woman of class doing her ‘Christian duty’?

And what of the woman who received it? When Beatrice received it was she pleased with it? The book is 105 years old but it is in excellent condition, yet the spine is not stiff, which suggests that it was read. Did she love it, cherish it? Or did she read it because her mistress expected it?

It is a mere snippet – and yet in just a tiny handful of words there is a story potentially as fascinating as the story within the book. 1910, the year the book was printed, was the year of Black Friday, the year Mary Macarthur led the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath to victory in their fight for a minimum wage, the year that there were two general elections, the year George V succeeded his father Edward VII as King and Dr Crippen was arrested, tried and hanged for his murdering his wife. In 1911, when Beatrice received the book, workers at the Singer sewing machine factory had gone on strike; suffragettes had stormed parliament, there had been a census and the hottest summer on record lasting from May to September.

How were these events shaping and changing their world?

There are lives and stories there, beckoning and yet perhaps unattainable. These women are but whispers of spirits upon the page, but I know that I will pause often on those words, and wonder. I will hover over the copper plate script and think about Beatrice and her unnamed mistress, bound to that book as inexorably as the author whose words inhabit the page.

Go then, my little Book, and show to all

That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,

What thou shalt keep close shut from the rest:

And wish what thou shall show them may be blessed

To them for good, may make them choose to be

Pilgrims better by far than thee or me.  ~ John Bunyan