Elizabeth Bennet: Queen of the Regency Heroines

Pride and Prejudice
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Jane Austen‘s life spanned two revolutions (the American and French) as well as Napoleon’s rise to power.  In the romance trade, this era was known as the Regency period.  It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty for the British Empire but when you read Austen’s work, it’s as though she was ignorant of the world beyond her tight little circle. In her novels, she created small, intimate communities where she simultaneously satirized and embraced the hypocrisy of her time, namely the audacity of an entitled, landed gentry who sneered at the merchant class, never bothering to ask or understand where the money came from to pay for their extravagant lifestyles.  In that narrowly prescribed sphere, Austen’s driving theme focused exclusively on the trials and tribulations of young women in their quest to secure a suitable mate.  For that was the sole measure of success for any young woman – the quality of the husband she caught.   

Of all the Austen heroines, who snagged the best man?  Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  According to the values of the Regency period, the more aristocratic, the more haughty and arrogant, the more desirable the man. Without a doubt, Darcy was the crème de la crème.  He was the wealthiest of the bunch.  Both his parents were dead and therefore couldn’t harass Elizabeth after the marriage, as you just knew Edward’s mother would do to Elinor in the post-wedding world of Sense and Sensibility.  Emma spent more time with Frank Churchill who turned out to be a foil hero with the real husband material, Knightley, relegated to the background for much of the story.  Edmund in Mansfield Park was a sap, easily entrapped by the villainess, Mary Crawford.  Captain Wentworth in Persuasion showed his disloyalty towards Anne when he had a fling with Louisa.

Darcy’s character was crafted with the same technique used for Elizabeth – all his supposed flaws were transformed to virtues by end of the novel.  His awkward arrogance was a masque for intelligence and depth of character.  Colin Firth perfected the look of cool reserve hiding a deep, painfully felt passion beneath. No wonder he was Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the modern day Prince Charming in Bridget Jones Diary

The other required male archetype of romance novels, the father, was best in Pride and Prejudice, too.  Mr. Bennet may have been a weakling, but at least he wasn’t senile like Emma’s father, or died leaving his wife and daughters nearly destitute as in Sense and Sensibility.  It’s a toss-up for the bottom spot, whether it goes to the pretentious, ignorant snob Sir Elliot of Persuasion or the drunken derelict of Mansfield Park who was rarely seen.

Another element that sets Elizabeth Bennet apart from her peers was the interplay with Darcy.  There’s the famous scene when he first proposes marriage to Elizabeth on the grounds that he’s lowered himself to accept her as the object of his desire.  Naturally, she spurns him, pointing out the insult in his proposal.   However, there was an earlier tête à tête where the relationship actually began. In front of Darcy’s friend, Bingley, they each offered a psychological assessment of Bingley’s personality.  The exchange became a sport with the words flying over Bingley’s head, and took on the intimate tone of intellectual sparring.  Their discourse generated sexual tension without the heroine losing her reputation, unlike Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  It made Elizabeth appear smart, lively and independent compared to the others. Emma comes off as conceited and snobbish. Elinor Dashwood was staid and practical, the polar opposite of her sister, the overly emotional and melodramatic Marianne. Anne Elliot was the repressed old maid and Fanny Price was mostly an empty vessel. 

There was lightness to Elizabeth’s character.  She foresaw her sister’s disgrace, and by association, the whole family’s loss of social standing.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s attitude didn’t carry the weight of the indiscretion. She was resigned to not finding a husband, but not defeated by it, avoiding the more morose perspective that overshadows Sense and Sensibility.  Elizabeth Bennet managed to rise above the fray at every turn, and by hooking up with Darcy, she redeemed the family’s reputation and fortune. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

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Pipe Dreams

Clay Pipe
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I find it curious that my all of favorite writers were smokers. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, William Faulkner—all of these wordsmiths were avid devotees of either pipes or cigars (or both). So why is it that writing and tobacco seem to be such close bedfellows?

For some, it is part of the writing ritual. Like making a fresh cup of coffee or sharpening a row of pencils, the process of filling a briar or lighting a cigar helps many writers get into their “writing space”—that delicate frame of mind where ideas are born and where (if you’re lucky) they make the awkward transition from abstract conceptualization to concrete form.

Of course, tobacco is also a stimulant, and a little stimulation never hurts when you are trying to crank out a steady number of manuscript pages. More importantly, perhaps, the rituals associated with smoking provide a type of distraction which is sometimes helpful in generating ideas. For me, some of my most creative moments have occurred when I wasn’t thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something mundane, like mowing the grass or talking a walk. Maybe for these authors, smoking did something similar.

Pipe smoking, in particular, is an inherently contemplative activity. If you try to rush it or fail to tend the flame properly, it won’t work—much like the act of writing itself. Thus you’d never picture Jack Kerouac furiously typing on his roll of computer paper with an imported meerschaum between his teeth. He, like John Steinbeck and Dylan Thomas, were cigarette guys, hard drinking and hard writing—not really the philosophical types.

So I wonder how many bowls of tobacco went into creating The Lord of the Rings or Huckleberry Finn? Both were years in the making, and had their authors not indulged in a bit of nicotine distraction, would these books have ever come about at all? Maybe in the next life we can sit down with these guys for a smoke and find out.

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The New Archetypes: Part 4

Shane Hong Kong Premiere Booklet 1953 P1309907

I’ve been talking about how the modern storytelling of movies has given us archetypes that are also uniquely modern.  Modern they may be but they still tend to follow classic Hero journeys.  A Rogue Cop is still our good guy and must still defeat the bad guys.  The Nobody will travel on a journey of discovery and emerge changed in the third act, hopefully for the better.  But there is a modern archetype whose story arc goes backwards.

The Retiree.  The Retiree as his name implies is at the end of his career or no longer in the line of work.  Whatever this line of work was it was dangerous or illegal or both.  The Retiree has probably enjoyed great success in theline of work even if that success is simply measured by the fact that he’s still alive.  The Retiree in many cases probably never thought he’d make it this far but now that he has he wants to get out of the field.  Older, wiser, past his prime and fully aware of it he dreams of different life.  A safe, normal life where he can forget about his past and grow old like everyone else.  At this point one of two things happens.  Either The Retiree has ‘just one more job’ before he can realize his dream or his retirement is interrupted because he gets ‘pulled back in’.

We might as well get right to Shane since it’s one of the first, one of the best, and pretty much the template.  There were definitely men in the Old West who made their entire living with their gun.  They were just as definitey not somebody you would run into all over the place.  Most people had real jobs.  But in the mythic West of the movies the gunslinger becomes a man of adventure and danger.  He lives by the gun and dies by the gun.  He lives by a code and dies by that code too.  Shane gets a chance to live a normal life when he’s taken in by a farmer and his family.  He works on the farm as a hired hand and seems like he has a chance at happiness and a normal life. 

Of course it’s never that easy.  The nefarious ranchers hate the farmers and their plowed fields and fences.  Shane backs the farmer who’s courageous but not a fighter.  When the ranchers hire a gunslinger to enforce their will there’s only one way to beat him.  Shane must strap on his peacemaker and become a gunslinger again.  The template is repeated in plenty of movies.  Pale Rider, another Western, is pretty much the same story but so is Soldier a sci-fi flick with Kurt Russel.  You can substitute any job that’s not 9-5 and the story will work.  He could be a car thief (Gone in 60 Seconds), he could be a mountain rescuer (Cliffhanger), or he could even be a ping pong player (Balls of Fury).

There’s a couple of things that make this archetype modern.  One is the simple idea of retirement.  Heroes of ancient myth didn’t really retire.  They fought monsters and wars then they died and their death was usually a big part of their story.  They rarely got old.  Being a hero wasn’t really a job anyway which brings us to the second thing.  The modern idea that you can choose (or at least try to) who you are.  The fates of ancient heroes were set down before they were born.  The Retiree, whatever his life was until now, has a choice to be something different, something better.  Like The Assassin story a good Retiree story has redemption at it’s core.  Shane chose to face his fate as a gunslinger.  He gave up that life to protect it and that final sacrifice is usually the emotional punch in the best of these stories. 

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Exercise and Writing: Majoring in the Minors

Pulldown exercise, which strengthens the arms ...
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I cannot believe I am even putting these two activities together in a title. Individually, each carry enough anxiety to my heart and in some cases a huge amount of disappointment. At any given point in time, there is a huge possibility that goals set for either task are slipping further and further away.

Last week as I closed the velcro on my work out gloves for the 20th strength training session, I began thinking about my commitment to both exercise and writing and reached an epiphany. The ability to miss commitments in both are deeply rooted in reasons that are identical twins.

Try it for yourself. Make a quick list , your Top 3 reasons,  that are at the root of you blowing writing goals or skipping exercise commitments. Common reasons that often surface to the top are not enough time, too many distractions; fear of failure and not seeing positive results fast enough or not having a strong enough belief that your work will yield winning results. We are looking for the major win, the loss of weight quickly or the best seller right out of the shoot. Yet we know that most successful people take incremental steps with extreme discipline towards their goals. They master majoring in the minors. Start writing consistently, schedule writing time and shoot to hit it consistently for 10 straight times.

What would be your idea of something you could do this week to get back on track  or stay on track with your writing goals?  It’s likely to be found in the small minor things.  Take small steps and I’d love to hear what you are doing.

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Cinderella – The Gold Standard of Fairy Tales

Old, Old Fairy Tales:
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The Romance Plot Thread

Enjoy them or despise them, a romantic plot thread, as long as it’s not gratuitous, enhances most stories. Otherwise, Top Gun wouldn’t have had the guy get the girl in the end.  An Officer and A Gentlemen was the same story simply written for a female audience.  

What makes a romance work?  Tension.  Sexual, emotional, or intellectual, in whatever combination the audience demands.  A timeless romance conquers all three.  But, the early fairy tales were largely confined to the emotional sphere, restricted from offering any sexual images, the intellectual reduced to symbolic mysticism.  The tension was by necessity all emotional.

Face Time

In the earliest versions, Cinderella attends three balls, seeing the prince each time.  Afterward she runs home with him chasing her in vain.  In Snow White there was no interaction with the prince until he’s attracted to her when she’s in a glass coffin.  I’d hate to examine the psychological meaning of that symbol.  For Sleeping Beauty, her prince charming was a mercenary lured by the promise of riches, never having set eyes on her.  By comparison, Cinderella’s prince knew who she was and sought after her desperately.  Being desired for who you are is a powerful emotion, and resonates beyond gender definitions.  It’s a more complex concept adding heft to the feelings evoked.  That’s the appeal, and the reason Cinderella has been co-opted as a modern story more often than all the other fairy tales taken together.

Foreground vs. Background

In the original version, Cinderella had no fairy godmother; it was the little critters who helped her.  She worked her tail off for that wicked stepmother.  By contrast Snow White was a silent symbol of purity and submissiveness.  The evil Queen and the amusing dwarfs dominated the stage.  Snow White’s one effort was to eat the poisoned apple and fall into a coma.  It was about the same with Sleeping Beauty.  She pricked her finger and fell asleep.  A comatose heroine isn’t much of a role model, or much of a role.

Cinderella is a cultural icon, an action figure who sets the baseline for feminine aspirations and desires.  That’s why she’s eternal, appearing in one form or another in every generation.

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