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Living In A Jane Austen Novel (When You're Not Elizabeth Bennet)

24/01/2017 17:49
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I have always turned the pages of Jane Austen novels with feverish anticipation; a silent reveling has accompanied the ultimate - albeit somewhat predictable - fulfillment of the heroine's romantic destiny. Whether it's the ultimate Austen heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, or the downtrodden Dashwood sisters, the somewhat spoiled and interfering Emma, or even the forlorn Fanny Price, the completion of their stories and the promise of their nuptial bliss is as compelling now as it was when they were first brought to literary life. While feminism has moved us lightyears away from any ideal requiring 'rescuing' by a dashing young (usually rich) male, we are nonetheless drawn in by these heroines' stories of improbable love materialising. What's more, many of us still want to be some version of Elizabeth Bennet, or at least the somewhat more modernised Bridget Jones type.

Let me say at this point: if your life happens to resemble Elizabeth Bennet's in any manner, and if your Mr Darcy is currently giving you a foot rub while staring at you adoringly, I am incredibly happy for you. Really, I am. I'll visit you at Pemberley or your Fifth Avenue loft sometime for tea. No need to read any further. If you happen to resemble some of the other characters in Jane Austen novels, this one's for you.

Let's take Elizabeth's childhood friend, Charlotte Lucas, for instance. She seems sweet enough but is not as attractive or as eloquent as Elizabeth. She simply cannot afford to cling to unrealistic ideals unfortunately. Austen makes a clear distinction between her character and that of Elizabeth: she has a certain sense of logic when it comes to love in contrast to Elizabeth's decidedly naive romanticism. When Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins - the obsequious, insipid and offensive cousin she is meant to marry to secure the family's future - Charlotte marries him instead. As she explains to Elizabeth, she isn't getting any younger and it may be time to settle down with a man who, despite his flaws, will be able to offer her some sort of future. In short, she has to choose between relinquishing romance or being an eternal spinster. Other non-Elizabeth types that provide a juxtaposition include manipulative, gold-digging women who have to use any means possible to secure the ideal man. Or the ultimate pariah when Austen's novels were set - the woman who never married at all.

As a single gay man, it has long been my earnest aspiration to be Elizabeth Bennet. But as time passes (I have recently turned 30), I realise that I may more likely be one of the other characters instead. As a man, one might imagine that the situation would be very different for me and that I would have much more agency in this regard. In fact, some may question the validity of this comparison if you are anyone but a 'damsel in distress' living during Austen's time. However, whether you happen to be a gay man or an empowered woman, or any variety who is certainly not a 'damsel in distress', many of us grapple with the same dilemma: when the world does not deliver upon your romantic aspirations, where does that leave you?

For many gay men, there is a certain level of disillusionment with dating and the pursuit of love. Part of this may include the readily available opportunities for casual sex, or the seemingly diminished possibilities for long-term connections. The Elizabeth Bennet ideal is floating further and further away. It stands to reason that this is a natural and healthy process: a noxious fantasy may be a good thing to relinquish. Yet, many of us still rushed out to watch Bridget Jones find love with Mr. Darcy (again) as recently as a few months ago.

While we realistically acknowledge that finding love may be no fairytale or romance novel, we may also secretly cling to a hidden desire to be Elizabeth Bennet. This can be psychologically taxing: a constant mismatch between expectation and reality. Is it time to 'settle' and relinquish outdated and unrealistic ideals? Maybe time to resort to husband-snatching tactics?

It might actually be time to re-think the whole construct of finding perfect love in the first place. Being the hero or heroine of your own story may require a new type of bravery: a deeper self-love that ultimately means that any love found is always an extension, never a completion. And not finding that 'perfect' love is not some kind of terrible affliction indicating that you are an irreparably flawed individual. Austen herself never married, despite being celebrated as the creator of one the most enduring romances of all time.

Who needs Mr. Darcy anyway?

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