Jane Austen is one of my favorite rereads when I’m looking for something with a tiny bit of angst and a happy ending. The humor is always subtle and there’s a plot that’s fairly easy to follow. Recently, I began to question the attitude that Jane has toward what I’m going to call “The other woman”.
Now, what I mean here by the “other woman” (and anyone who has been in a relationship and felt threatened in any way will understand) is the chick that captures the attention of a taken man. Let’s face it. Many men are a bit ego driven and when a woman makes them feel big and strong and IMPORTANT, it can be the equivalent of a women being made to feel beautiful. My experience is that men, bless their hearts, will look and even encourage the attentions of another woman regardless of the consequences. As many times as a chick at the bar is making eyes at a taken man, that guy is returning the look with interest.
Don’t get me wrong. There are men who, even though they might enjoy the attention, keep all relations with the opposite sex at a friendly, totally appropriate level. But even the best of men can get their head turned and their egos fluffed, even if the admiration they think they’re getting is all in their own mind.
So, how does Jane Austen present the “other woman”? The first depiction I immediately thought of was in “Sense and Sensibility” when Marianne is set down by John Willoughby so coldly in London. Marianne has been charmed, believing that Willoughby cared for her. Indeed, Ms. Austen implies even in the midst of a very different happy ending for Marianne, that Willoughby did care for her. In London, however, Marianne finds that her letters sent, a very bold move for a women in those days, were not wanted.
What we all discover is that Marianne is now the “other woman”. Willoughby has committed himself to Ms. Grey, a woman of fortune, and Marianne is the young girl who tries to claim affection. A very cold, ugly rejection by Willoughby is given to Marianne and later in the story Willoughby claims the words were not his own, but were at the dictation of Ms. Grey.
And here’s where I take issue. Ms. Austen seems to judge Ms. Grey, as if she parted two young people in love rather than a woman who felt threatened. Charming John Willoughby must explain to his new future wife why a pretty young girl seems to think he would answer inappropriate letters and accept shocking familiarity. The fact is that Ms. Grey was a woman who probably fell for the same line of bullshit that Marianne did and that those actions taken by Willoughby were an ultimatum laid down to preserve a relationship Ms. Grey may have believed genuine. We only have John Willoughby’s word on Ms. Grey’s motives and actions and I wouldn’t believe a damn thing that jerk has to say.
Now, let’s talk about Ms. Steele. And before I continue, I want to say that I cannot STAND the character of Lucy Steele. She is a conniving, underhanded person who is the worst kind of female, BUT she is also kind of treated like shit in the story which should make me feel sorry for her, but for some reason doesn’t.
Lucy Steele falls for Edward Ferrers when they are young people thrown together and these two become engaged. Edward, though he maintains his loyalty to Lucy, isn’t very complimentary about her when he compares her to the most awesome Elinor. Let’s face it. Who could stand up against Elinor? No one. Elinor is wonderful. So, Edward, falls for Elinor though he is engaged to Lucy and kept that a dirty little secret.
Ms. Austen is pretty severe about Lucy Steele. Granted, the chick manipulates Elinor, basically mind fucking Edward and Elinor, knowing they are in love. But, looking at it from Lucy’s perspective, she had been in love with Edward first and had a promise of love in return. She had to fight with whatever weapons she knew how to use.
Yet, Ms. Austen paints a picture of a grasping, selfish girl who is rightly boxed in the ears for daring to love Edward Ferrers. Frankly, looking at it this way, I find it wickedly satisfactory that Lucy captures Robert Ferrers and can give Fanny the big middle finger. But we’re told that Lucy begged and cajoled to be accepted back into the Ferrer family good graces and given the impression that Lucy’s character was not a good one. Funny, since truly, Lucy was given the short end of the stick in this situation and should make us feel sorry for her. Instead, by the time I was done with Sense and Sensibility, I couldn’t stand Lucy.
There are two other instances and again, Ms. Austen seems to side with the “other woman” rather than the slighted woman.
In “Emma”, Mr. Elton makes a play for Emma Woodhouse and is soundly rejected. Of course, we readers have no sympathy for him since he wasn’t a very interesting or nice character. Mr. Elton subsequently marries another woman, Augusta, and we are introduced to Mrs. Elton who is depicted by Ms. Austen in the most negative light. Mrs. Elton’s hostility to Emma is instantaneous and Ms. Austen seems to find this unreasonable. Again, I cannot STAND the character of Mrs. Elton, but I think I can definitely see why she would be so rude to Emma and to Harriet, the young woman Emma had encouraged to hope for an alliance with Mr. Elton.
Faced with two women who had been both the object of a proposal and had hoped for a proposal from her husband, Mrs. Elton goes on the offensive. It’s not pretty at all and, I suppose, is a good lesson for all married women everywhere that even when one’s husband goes along with the nasty comments, it makes you look bad.
Still, there is absolutely NO sympathy for Mrs. Elton who is definitely an interfering pain in the ass, but then, so is Emma so…
All our sympathies are with poor Emma who was so wrong about Mr. Elton who is depicted as “little”. Mrs. Elton is portrayed as arrogant, bitchy and condescending. Things I’m sure Emma certainly wasn’t. Oh wait-
And the last one is the one that I can relate to the most, because I think this is the one we’re familiar with.
Jane Fairfax has fallen for Frank Churchill in a big way. She’s secretly engaged, has all the reassurance of his love and affection. Yet, when she arrives home, she finds Frank paying attention to Emma Woodhouse. Oh, we’re given the bullshit excuse that Frank was covering up his real love for Jane by dallying with Emma but I don’t think so. I think Frank enjoyed himself immensely, getting Emma to flirt back with him, basically playing the potential mate with a woman he had no intention of marrying.
Jane is very hurt. Understandably. Ms. Austen, however, is on Emma’s side with this and makes Jane out to be unfriendly and a victim. Emma and Frank (one unwittingly and the other with malicious intent) torture Jane not only with their cruel jokes about rumor and speculation regarding Jane’s situation, but also with their intimacy with each other. It is one of the most monstrous portrayals of a man being a complete asshole I’ve seen.
Ms. Austen gives Jane a bit more sympathy than some of her other characters, but I still find that she seems to judge the poor girl harshly. Regardless of Emma’s opinion, Jane Fairfax would have made Knightly a great wife. I’m just saying. The “happy” ending for Jane, married to the asshole that treated like shit until his rich aunt died, is questionable. But Jane’s hostility for Emma is better explained and given credence, though there was still a bit of a tone regarding their “secret” engagement.
All in all, Jane Austen seems to favor the “other woman” who attracts the attention of a man rather than the married/engaged woman whose relationship feels threatened. And the men whose heads are turned often don’t get their comeuppance. Willoughby retains his rich wife. Edward wins Elinor. Mr. Elton is in the mutual hate society with his wife, and Frank gets Jane (and he doesn’t deserve her).
I find that all kind of interesting.