Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Toby Young on Jane Austen

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

In terms of relations between the sexes, Manhattan is like a throwback to the nineteenth century. At the "hot boites" of the moment the men slouch at tables in chinos and button-down shirts while the women parade past them like peacocks, fanning out their tail feathers for all the world to see. Sitting in the audience at the premiere of Sense and Sensibility on December 13, 1995, it suddenly struck me that the reason for the glut of Jane Austen adaptations -- Clueless and Persuasion had been released earlier that year and Emma would soon follow -- was because of the overwhelming similarity between early-nineteenth-century rural England and late twentieth-century urban America.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason Austen adaptations struck such a chord with American audiences wasn't due to the usual nostalgic yearning for a kinder, gentler era in which everyone wore top hats and lived in stately homes. It was because they recognized their own society up there on the big screen. Austen's novels may appear to be light, pastoral comedies about romantic love, but whisk the tea cozy aside and the cruel mechanics of nineteenth-century English society are laid bare.

Take the case of Ron Perelman, the richest man in the city. In 1995 he was married to Patricia Duff, a gorgeous blonde trophy wife, having divorced Claudia Cohen, a middle-aged glamorpuss, a year earlier. After Perelman separated from Duff in 1996 he was linked with a string of beauties, including the acress Ellen Barkin. Given Perelmen's physical appearance, it seems unlikely that he would have gotten all these women if he'd been, say, a plumber.

Kurt Andersen made this point in an email exchange with Nora Ephron in Slate on September 13, 1999: "Regarding Ron Perelman (and the Ron Perelmans of the world): At what level of consciousness do you suppose he knows or cares that if he weren't rich he wouldn't get to sleep with women like Patricia Duff and Ellen Barkin? And, even more coarsely, how tightly do you think the Patricia Duffs and Ellen Barkins of the world have to close their eyes and think of $$$ as they're being ravished by unattractive billionaires?"

The world Austen depicts -- a world in which ambitious young women compete with each other to attract the attention of rich, eligible men -- is uncannily like contemporary Manhattan. Both societies are rigidly hierarchical, with power concentrated in the hands of a plutocratic elite, and the swiftest route to the top is through marriage. The cavernous waterfront mansions in the Hamptons that New York's ruling class retreat to every summer are the equivalent of Pemberly, Darcy's estate in Derbyshire.

The willingness of New York women to enter what is essentially a nineteenth-century marriage market is surprising. After all, the cause of women's emancipation is more advanced in Manhattan than in any other city in the world. They might not describe themselves as "feminists," but if these women experience any form of discrimination they're straight on the phone to their attorneys. They're more ambitious, better educated and less oppressed than any previous generation of women and yet they're prepared to go to any lengths, however demeaning, to secure a husband. Why?

The short answer is in order to impress other women. As anyone who's read Edith Wharton will know, it's long been a fact of life in Manhattan, particularly among the social elite of the Upper East Side, that women judge each other according to who they can ensnare. Status is valued more highly than any other commodity in New York and marrying well is still the fastest way to get it. At Vanity Fair legend has it that when one female Contributing Editor finally landed her trophy husband the first person she called was not her mother but the gossip columnist Liz Smith. Only after Liz had promised to announce the engagement in her column did the contributor deign to tell her family.

But why is a prominent husband still considered such a desirable asset? One hundred years ago women's status was largely dependent on who their husbands were but today they're perfectly capable of acquiring it in their own right. So why don't they? The answer is they do, but on the whole they prefer to do it with a ring on their finger. Part of the reason is that New York is such a Darwinian place. In this fundamentally hostile environment, full of ruthless predators who'll stop at nothing to get to the top, people are constantly forming alliances for their own protection and a husband is the most dependable ally a woman can have. Yet it's also because, in terms of sheer status wattage, women shine more brightly if they're married to a powerful man, particularly successful women. The ideal is to become the female half of a power couple. In Manhattan, the highest tier of society is occupied by these all-conquering husband-and-wife teams: Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, Gail Sheehy and Clay Felker, Binky Urban and Ken Auletta, Tina Brown and Harold Evans -- the list is endless. For the city's most ambitious women, this is the ultimate goal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer has written about how marriage in the big cities involves years of accumulating enough wealth so you can settle down.

It's interesting how different people find different things in great works of art. Rich secular folk are attracted to the money aspect of her novels, while small town and suburban religious folk like the idea of a socially conservative romance.

(I should note that the novels are _extremely_ popular among conservative religious women.)

- Thursday