Saturday, 26 December 2009
Like most families, we have inviolable rituals for the spending of Christmas Day. There's a couple of church services, of course. There are particular foods to be eaten at their apportioned times, and the contents of crackers to be guffawed at; and once the food and the red wine and the effects of the past week have taken effect, there is, for me, a couple of hours asleep. There is a particular time for parcels to be unwrapped and a time honoured way of going about it. There is the ritual phoning and texting and skyping to be done, and then, finally there is the one thing that happens on the evening of every Christmas Day: the watching of something long and absorbing on an LCD screen. There are some rules about suitable content, of course. It must be British (or at a pinch, something directed by Peter Jackson or something Canadian). It must involve people dressed in costumes from another time and/or place. It must have believable characters, lots of clever dialogue, great production values and at some stage it must make all of us cry, if only just a little. Last night it was the BBC's 2007 production of Persuasion, which ticked all the boxes very nicely indeed, and if I find the time in the next day or two I will review it. Like all satisfying works of art, it sent me to bed thinking, and allowed me to wake up with an idea.
I took a degree in English literature in the early 1970s which meant reading lots of books and lots of poems from the 19th Century. I did papers on Romanticism and on the development of the English novel, but it occurred to me this morning, that most of what I studied was books and poems by and about and for blokes. In three years, I think I studied two novels by women: Middlemarch and Mansfield Park. The great women writers: The Bronte sisters; Jane Austen; Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot were of course acknowledged, but they were at best, placed in the second rank of writers behind the true greats: Shakespeare, of course and Milton, Dickens, Shaw, Byron, Wordsworth and all those other guys with whiskers and quill pens. The women swam in the middling waters of the literary pool with people like Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy. Which is odd. Very odd, when you think that any list of the greatest English novels of all time must contain Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice amongst the top 5 placings, and probably amongst the top 2.
Which leads me to this morning's thought. A mini revelation, of sorts. The tide has turned, and it is shown in the huge revival of interest in Jane Austen: not just in the many film and television productions of her work, but in the renewed printings of all her novels and in the dramatic knock offs and speculations about her life: Lost in Austen and Miss Austen Regrets, for example. This is surely a mark of our progress in gender relationships: More women readers; more women academics; more women making production decisions at the BBC; more women buying the stuff that is flogged off in the ad breaks; more people of both genders making a truer assessment of our literary heritage and what was and what was not important in its development.
There is the germ of an idea also about the world which gave rise to 19th Century women's literature and that which gave rise to the stuff that blokes wrote, but that's probably a decent PhD thesis, and I'd get myself into trouble trying to develop it in a blog post.
And if I wanted to get myself into real trouble I would speculate about why ardent, convinced, articulate, educated third wave feminists such as my daughters and their friends are so emotionally and intellectually enamoured of the formalised and mannered sexual politics of the early 19th Century. But I'm not that silly.
In the meantime, I will bow to the household's resident Jane Austen authority and agree to watch the definitive Pride and Prejudice yet again tonight, or, if I can get my own way,perhaps negotiate a compromise, and watch Silas Marner.