Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tonight's Pride and Prejudice discussion was frustrating.

It's not easy to mount a defense of Lydia, as I halfheartedly attempted tonight. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story or have forgotten, much of the drama in the middle act of the novel revolves around Lydia's elopement with Wickham, an amiable-seeming character eventually revealed as a scoundrel . Without the permission or even notice of her father, this is a scandal, and one that places the Bennett family in considerable danger. It's strongly implied that Wickham had no intention of marrying Lydia, and meant to take his pleasure and leave her honorless with little hope of finding a husband. This puts the entire Bennett family, who has the unenviable task of marrying off five daughters, in peril; it shames the entire family and makes it unlikely that any of her sisters would be able to find a husband to support them.

This is by no means frivolous, and the outrage of her family is not simply a retrograde expression of barbaric sexual mores. While the modern ethic would discount such concerns, Lydia's actions have placed the future happiness and prosperity of her sisters in jeopardy. When your means of supporting yourself is tied only to who you marry, you'd best ensure that you can make a good match. To that extent, an analogous (and suitably privileged) situation might be one where a modern-day Lydia gambled away her sisters' college funds.

And to be sure, much as I would like to lionize Lydia as an imperious defender of her right to dispose her body as she sees fit, or as practicing a stoic defiance in refusing to allow the social consequences of her actions to destroy her happiness, she is, in the end, simply a naive girl. She is not the socially transgressive version of Charlotte, who walks into a dreary marriage with her eyes open, and a plan for finding her happiness even inside her unfortunate circumstances. She simply had little sense, and her family nearly paid dearly for it (disaster is somewhat averted when the couple is found and Wickham is cajoled to marry Lydia by promising to pay off his gambling debts).

Even so, much of the discussion tonight revolved around excoriating Lydia not simply for her foolishness but for her selfishness. Putting her family in that much peril was unconscionable, said most of the table, and given the above, it's hard to say that they're entirely wrong.

Yet I couldn't help but feel attacked every time one of my classmates launched another salvo at the girl, because despite (and perhaps because of) her faults, I saw a lot of myself in Lydia. I'm profoundly uncomfortable in asserting that she has a responsibility to consider respectability or even the prospects of her sisters in choosing her relationships. The bottom line is that, not so very long ago, and not so very far away from my birthplace in St. Louis or from my college campus here in Santa Fe, I would have been expected to forgo every prospect of happiness in marriage, or in any case had my options intolerably limited, on account of propriety and the reputation of my family. Though I have for the most part been spared this dilemma by changing attitudes toward homosexuality, I would fervently like to believe that I would be acting exactly as I am now, whether I were born forty or four hundred or a thousand years ago, or a few thousand miles to the south.

Despite rehearsing this speech in my head for several minutes, I never did give it, and perhaps for good reasons. Putting a modern- or an idiosyncratic- lens to an ancient author is rarely productive. I had to set aside my skepticism about the supernatural to get anything out of Aquinas, and likewise, if I'm to get anything out of Austen, I might have jettison cherished beliefs about sexual freedom.

Even so, I have to wonder if there's not some privilege operating underneath tonight's discussion. Not all my hesitation was attributable to intellectual modesty- there's an unfortunate tendency to discourage bringing up the ways in which privilege can influence thought. St. John's College doesn't tend to think much of the critique that almost all of our works were written by dead white men, and as such are somewhat blinkered, or in any case present only a narrow point of view. They prefer to view thinkers as cogitating in isolation, and that good thought transcends circumstances. To be fair, the college is consistent about this, being skeptical about the role of autobiographical information and historical context in proper exegesis.

In any case, because most of my classmates occupy a normative sexuality, they can't really put themselves in Lydia's position. They don't feel quite as strongly what's at stake when they assert that her sexual decisions ought to be subordinate to the well being of her family. For them, such an assertion is an entertaining thought experiment, a trying on of how things seemed a few centuries ago- or more charitably, it's an exercise of intellectual rigor that sets aside their own opinions in favor of meeting the author on his or her own terms. Either way, I have to wonder if a few of the women in our class weren't, as I was tonight, choking back the bile when us boys blithely treated Aristotle's misogyny as an intellectual parlor game.

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