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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Craving the misery

Five years ago, the British journalist Tanya Gold wrote a whole article about how much she dislikes Jane Austen. Now, in an article about how Bridgerton is bad but she loves it anyway, Gold has managed to sneak in yet more questionable digs at Austen.


Gold’s critique of Bridgerton, Netflix's megahit Regency romance series, basically boils down to this: The show’s parade of hot-yet-sensitive aristocrats idealizes the British class system and airbrushes away the true suffering and injustice of Regency England. Why is no one dying of syphilis or revolting against oppressive social structures? (Interestingly, this was more or less her critique of Austen, too.)


“This is an eighteenth century without misery,” Gold writes. “Jane Austen with the sex put back in; wish-fulfillment, not feminism. Sexual pleasure predates universal suffrage: orgasm and liberation are different things.”


Maybe it can all be blamed on genre: “It is conservative, being romance fiction, whose essential command is--if you don’t have, or want, a patriarch, invent one as an avatar, or toy,” Gold writes. “This genre is a system of feminine control . . . . It’s about coping, and gilding.” Still, Gold is fond of Bridgerton protagonist Penelope, who pens a pseudonymous gossip column: “She is close in spirit to anti-social Jane Austen (she hated Bath),” Gold says. 


So. Many. Thoughts.


I could talk about how silly it is to hold romcom fantasies to the standards of History Channel documentaries. Or about how one important goal of second-wave feminism was reclaiming the right to female sexual pleasure. Or about how contemporary romance fiction is a diverse and complicated genre that resists this kind of reductive pigeon-holing.


But you pay me to be a Jane Austen blogger—well, you don’t, but that’s my niche—so I will stick to pointing out the Jane Austen problems:


1. Jane Austen’s novels are not sex-free zones. I’ll concede that they do not include the explicit sex scenes featured in Bridgerton, in both its book and screen incarnations. But every one of Austen’s novels includes at least a hint of transgressive sexuality (elopement, adultery, seduction, out-of-wedlock pregnancy), and often a lot more than a hint. Several also imply quite a bit of sexual tension between the protagonists. Which is, arguably, hotter than the explicit stuff. In other words: Jane Austen is Jane Austen with the sex put back in.

2. Jane Austen's novels are not misery-free zones, either. I'll concede that they mostly do not discuss the kind of misery with which social scientists concern themselves--poverty, endemic disease, political inequality. But Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas Bertram torture Fanny Price, each in their own way; Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse endure dark nights of the soul as they wrestle with uncomfortable self-knowledge. Austen's concerns are with manners, morality, and individual life choices. That stuff never goes out of style. And, incidentally, it can be plenty feminist.


3. Jane Austen probably did hate Bath, but that doesn’t make her anti-social: It’s clear from her letters that she enjoyed dinners, parties, and dances and had a number of close friends and a wide-ish circle of acquaintances. True, some of her novels paint a dark picture of social interaction—stay tuned for a guest post on this theme that I recently wrote for Sarah Emsley’s upcoming blog series on Sense and Sensibility—but not all of them do. As with all things Austen, this is a subject for nuanced discussion rather than broad-brush generalization.


There! I've had my say, so it's time to settle in for a Bridgerton binge-watch. Pass the popcorn, Tanya.


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