steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Jane Austen, Quantum Physics and Melanie Klein

My daughter, who is currently reading Persuasion for the first time, met me for an outdoor lunch on College Green today. She mentioned that Austen fails the reverse Bechdel test. Not that she disapproved of this - on the contrary. As this blog on the subject puts it:

Austen, of course, being a proper Regency-era lady would never have been able to witness men talking to each other without any women around, and being the brilliant author that she was, she wouldn’t settle for secondary resources illuminating the matter.

It's certainly true that the men would have behaved differently had Austen been there to watch them. This kind of observer effect is of course familiar to those working in quantum mechanics. Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft no doubt spend much of their time talking about waves, but in Persuasion they are always particles. Perhaps, though, we should blame Austen for not boring spy-holes (double slits, if you will) in the eyes of a family portrait to allow her to eavesdrop on the men next door? More importantly, does this excuse hold good for male authors who fail the ordinary Bechdel test?

Another urgent point that came out of our discussion was the wetness of Anne Elliot. When my daughter claimed this quality for her, my immediate response was, "Just wait till you meet Fanny Price!" But then I immediately retracted, for Fanny is nothing if not incredibly strong-willed. She may be mousy, but she is a bone dry mouse.

And, walking home afterwards, it occurred to me that the story of a chaste young woman who resists the blandishments of an eligible young man over the course of several hundred pages, and whose parents live elsewhere in straitened circumstances, was one I had read before. More to the point, so had Austen - in fact it is the plot of one of her favourite author's most celebrated books. Was Mansfield Park effectively a rewrite of Pamela, in fact? The moment I saw this, I realised its truth. Except, of course, that in Mansfield Park the role of Mr B has been split, a la Melanie Klein, into two figures: Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram.

Is this a commonplace observation, or my own discovery? It startled me, at any rate. I love Pamela (guilty pleasure though it be) and have never warmed to Mansfield Park, but armed with this new insight I may give it another go.
Tags: books, real life

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