Your RDA of Irony

Austen and Ostentation

America is definitely in recession. With oil commanding $100 a barrel, Mobile-Exxon evidently can no longer afford to subsidize Masterpiece Theater. (Actually, with oil at that price, the petroleum moguls no longer bother maintaining a friendly public image.) For some reason, PBS has renamed the series “Masterpiece.” Either deleting that extra word saved money, or today’s public no longer has the attention span for a two-word title.

The new host of “Masterpiece” is Gillian Anderson, who needs Cliffs Notes just to read the teleprompter. Ask her if she has ever read Austen, and she would think that you referred to a Texan city map. Worse, the production staff is not much brighter than Ms. Anderson. Reading with all the expression of Wolf Blitzer in a coma, Ms. Anderson relates how Ms. Austen sold the publishing rights to her first novel for a mere 10 Pounds. However, a little research might have provided a correct appreciation of that amount. Ten Pounds Sterling in 1800 would be worth $5000 today. That is not a fortune, but first-time writers are still at the mercy of their publishers. (And that explains the need for literary agents.) The average British laborer in 1800, one lucky enough to have a steady income, did not earn a Pound in a week. Miss Austen’s servants did not; but they were compensated with a drafty place to sleep and the used food leftover by the Austen family.

Those servants knew their place, which was not in Ms. Austen’s novels. She was a chronicler of her class–the gentry–and its travails of being snubbed by the aristocracy and crowded by the upcoming middle class. Even Britain’s war against Napoleon is seen through this social lorgnette. The navy, no matter how victorious, lacked the “suitability” of the army. You see, the naval officers were promoted on that vulgar criterion of merit. Horatio Nelson was just a vicar’s son. Army officers, however, purchased their commission; they need never stoop to earning their rank. Wellington, of course, was from gentry; his ability was simply a fortunate coincidence.

Yes, Jane Austen is a delightful writer. She regales us with the foibles and eccentricities of her world, but her insight stops short of realizing the inequity and injustice on which that world so smugly rests. There were two Englands. In Miss Austen’s, the heroines hungered for true love or at least an amiable marriage. In the other England, people simply hungered.

  1. karen finerman says:

    we’ll always have darcy.

  2. Peggles says:

    Hubba, hubba!

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