Beth Massey lives in Chicago with her husband of forty plus years. Her first love as a child was the theatre. A voracious reader, she devoured plays and novels with an eye toward imagining how she would play certain characters. Beth was recruited to the Chattanooga Little Theatre's youth troupe at age eight. At Barnard College in NYC, Beth threw herself into the struggle against war, racism, the emerging women's liberation movement and the Columbia University student strike of 1968. While there, she met her husband Bill. Together they have devoted their lives to political activism.
Now that both are retired from their day jobs, Ms Massey spends her days in the company of her well-informed best friend and the two are free to engage in a great deal of conversation. Jane Austen would approve, and Beth is quite certain that like Dawsey and Juliet they have had a discussion that encompassed Jonathan Swift, pigs and the Nuremberg trials.
Beth may have left a life in the theatre behind, but the desire for a creative outlet and a need to sketch the human character is still fervent.
Please welcome Beth on My Jane Austen Book Club and check out the giveaway details below to win her
I am an oddity in the world of Jane Austen inspired literature. To me, my favorite author neither wrote nor began the genre of romance novels. Yes, she felt the need to provide a happy ending for her women protagonists. Happy, if you assume marriage is the most fortuitous life for gently-bred females. In real life, Jane did the unthinkable and followed a different drummer and has been inspiring many for the last 200 years to take another path—even when it was so very difficult. Still I am no fool. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the majority of her female devotees spend their time repining for Mr. Darcy and his many film iterations and pay scant attention to her literary legacy.
Jane’s plots often explore the traits a lady should consider as she accepts (one of the few instances of power for a woman of her time) a gentleman’s proposal. What I admire most is that she set forth her musings in a most innovative style—almost completely devoid of any of the romantic trappings all the rage during her age (nature, the past, heroic emotions, the mystical or the gothic).
So you ask me, if it wasn’t romance, what was her intent? Was she lampooning society like Jonathan Swift or rewarding virtue and punishing evil like Samuel Richardson? There is a case to be made she was influenced by Henry Fielding with his tongue-in-cheek blend of satire and principles, and I definitely see an appreciation for dramatist Richard Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’ reflected in her outrageous characterization of Lydia Bennet. How many young women in literature could there be who are both named Lydia and enthralled with the idea of eloping with a soldier?
Though there is a bit of poking fun, she brings something much more realistic to her readers with regard the human condition than mere spoof. As for punishment, she clearly says in ‘Mansfield Park’ chapter 48: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
It is my decided opinion that she was the mother of the modern psychological novel. Austen uniquely crafted characters whose motives, circumstances and aspirations move the action. Austen brought to life a variety of vibrant personages and allowed their lively interactions to enlighten her readers as to what values she thought important to her class and sex. None are particularly exotic and their mundane domestic activities are quite tame, but oh so familiar. She makes us think of actual people in our lives—and that remains true two hundred years later. The first time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at seventeen, I saw my mother in Mrs. Bennet—though her 20th century obsession was not marriage but getting me into a seven sisters college and enjoying the bragging rights my accomplishment would win for her. As I devoured Jane’s other novels, I met some of the most memorable characters who had ever whet my literary appetite—Elizabeth Bennet, Mary and Henry Crawford, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Emma Woodhouse and her quirky father to name just a few. Mr. Woodhouse, who is alternately funny and maddening, is my current favorite. He reminds me of my dear husband who develops a new phobia each time his aging body betrays him
Today, Austen’s most popular character is one she spent very few words putting flesh on his bones. We know so little about Mr. Darcy. Our dear author did condescend to say he was tall and handsome—not to mention rich. That has been just shallow enough to appeal to numerous generations of women as maleness perfected. To give him and my sisters their due, I must also admit that he loved Elizabeth ardently, his character was upright and he was willing to change when confronted with his failings. Those latter characteristics probably have had something to do with his enduring popularity as well.
I am unsure what Dickens thought about Jane, but I can see her influence in the characters he crafted—though he credits Balzac who published his first entry in La Comédie Humaine twenty years after ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ All three write people with flaws in a realistic way, but Ms Austen was first. Mr. Collins pops to mind every time I encounter Uriah Heap in ‘David Copperfield.’ Mark Twain, though vociferous in proclaiming his dislike of Jane, also admits to reading her more than once. “Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” The important phrase here is “every time I read.” After sixty years of devouring the printed word, I assure you that one does not reread books because of dislike.
The creature Jane penned that leaves me most in awe of her talent is John Willoughby. Twain said of him: “Willoughby is a frankly cruel, criminal and filthy society-gentleman.” I agree. After I read ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ I felt the need to act and, unlike Jane, the need to punish.
Austen’s development of her rogue was brilliant and filled from the very beginning with her sly humor and ambiguity. He is the definitive romantic hero as he enters the stage. He rides forth on his steed in the midst of a menacing storm to save the injured maiden. He throws rigid behavior to the wind—with all the honor of a knight of old—to return a young lady in pain to the bosom of her family. Margaret Dashwood calls him her sister’s ‘preserver.’
Once he is on the scene, Ms Austen enhances his romantic trappings. He reads with passion, he prefers wild flowers to those from a hot house and finally our dear author makes a wry literary joke. Willoughby purloins a lock of Marianne’s hair as a keepsake with a nod to Mr. Pope. Is he swoon-worthy or humorous, Ms Austen?
Promoting confusion about her character starts soon after he begins paying attention to Marianne. Willoughby publicly makes fun of Colonel Brandon for leaving on an important errand and ruining a day of festivities. He takes Marianne Dashwood about unchaperoned and gives her the inappropriate gift of a horse. We are not too concerned because all this will be forgiven when he makes an offer of marriage. Elinor tries to make sense of the man to whom her sister is becoming attached. Sir John knows almost nothing of Willoughby (in stark contrast to Colonel Brandon whose upright character is well known in the neighborhood) but instead shares that he possesses a pretty black bitch pointer. We laugh, relax and believe we should not be overly worried. This is after all a romance is it not? But humorous hints like this foreshadow the truth our dear author wants us to question.
In chapter 28, we have the cut of Marianne by Willoughby at the London assembly. In chapter 29, we are privy to his letter breaking all ties, albeit with very ‘pretty’ words, with the woman we had persuaded ourselves he adored. He even returned her letters and the lock of her hair to confirm there was nothing, and never had been, anything substantial between them. Our hearts are broken along with Marianne’s. Finally in chapter 31, Colonel Brandon reveals devastating information about our hero. His words are ‘plain’ in their condemnation of Willoughby: “which no man who can feel for another would do. He had left the girl whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of the utmost distress… with… no help, no friends, ignorant of his address! He had left her, promising to return; he neither returned, nor wrote, nor relieved her."
In complete denial, we wonder whether Willoughby just suffers from an abominably poor memory. Not only did he forget that he neglected to give Miss Williams his direction; but when directly confronted by Elinor, he claims he is unable to recall whether he told Marianne he would return soon from town or not. Still there are readers (I read a piece by one very recently) who prefer to believe that he was forced by economic circumstances to act in a most uncharacteristic way. The need to believe in the ‘power of love’ must be very strong for some. The plain truth is printed on the page, spoken by a most honorable man, but still it can’t be true. Willoughby must love Marianne until the end of time—it is the romantic way and he even confessed to Elinor he did.
Ms Austen pulls the rug out from her reader’s sensibilities in chapter 44. To me she paints a ‘sociopath’ long before the word was coined. Her romantic rogue is all over the place trying different tactics to salvage his reputation with the friends and relatives of the young woman with whom he trifled. The reasons for his riding from London remain ever shifting throughout the chapter. Was he drunk, fearing Marianne was at death’s door or had business at Combe Magna? If he had known she was to survive would he have bothered? Nothing is conclusive, but our author is throwing so many disparate bits to ponder.
Our romantic hero resorts often to the blame game during this masterfully written chapter. Willoughby, in stark contrast to both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars, is loyal to no one—except himself. After casting aspersions on the Colonel’s ability to tell the truth, he segues into questioning the man’s fifteen-year-old ward’s morality—“that because she was injured, she was irreproachable; and because I was a libertine, she must be a saint.” The next object of his disloyalty is his cousin Mrs. Smith. “The purity of her life, the formality of her notions, her ignorance of the world—everything was against me.” His strong affection for Marianne (she too must share in the blame for his bad behavior) caused him to cross the ‘rigidly proper’ Mrs. Smith when she gave him an ultimatum that he must do the honorable thing and marry the pregnant Eliza Williams in order to inherit her fortune.
His most egregious act of disloyalty, in my opinion, is to his new wife. After telling Elinor it was his ‘strong affection’ for her sister that prompted his decision not to comply with Mrs. Smith’s ultimatum, he proposed to Miss Grey within weeks of leaving Marianne. He chose her to compensate for the inheritance he lost when he refused to marry the fifteen-year-old he had ruined. Upon reading this, I was both confused and horrified. These were not the principles I was given as a child. We next learn Miss Grey dictated the letter he sent to Marianne. Her sister is appalled at his words accusing Mrs. Willoughby of jealousy when she found Marianne’s notes. It was she who insisted her fiancé write to sever all ties. Elinor says: “you ought not to speak in this way, either of Mrs. Willoughby or my sister.” He replies: “Do not talk to me of my wife… She knew I had no regard for her when we married.” I, for one, completely agree with Elinor. Speaking poorly of one’s wife in public—regardless of the reason for the marriage—is most improper behavior and much more despicable than Wickham’s spreading tales of Darcy. Only a reader wearing rose-colored romantic spectacles could fail to see the complete lack of moral fiber in this character. He is as Mark Twain said: “a filthy society-gentleman.”
“Domestic happiness is out of the question.” Marianne’s ‘preserver’ concludes his damage control meeting with Elinor spouting that bit of dramatic prosing. As I said earlier, Jane Austen was a master of foreshadowing and that same sentiment crops up again in her summary for Willoughby in the final chapter. Yes, she says “that he long thought of Colonel Brandon with envy, and of Marianne with regret.” However those were not her final words on the subject. They were: “But that he was forever inconsolable -- that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on -- for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable! and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.” Eliza Williams’ fate is not even mentioned nor that of her child. With biting irony Ms Austen exposes a very sad reality for her sex.
Two hundred years later the theme of loyalty and integrity toward women (and the men who truly love them) in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ still resonates with me. I blame Jane for making me despise Willoughby as a man not worthy of her reader’s admiration. Still, I love the way she crafted his persona—the masterful blending of his meaningless heroic words with his cruel actions. Ms Austen forces her readers to use ‘sense’ not ‘sensibility’ as they sketch his character.
Her powerful profile of an amoral profligate prompted my desire to bring to reckoning such a man who would ruin the life of a fifteen-year-old with nary a thought for her as a person. Along with punishing the perpetrator, I wanted to vindicate such a young woman and allow her and her child a ‘degree of domestic felicity.’ Those two needs compelled the writing of ‘Goodly Creatures, a Pride and Prejudice Deviation.’ In the fanfiction world, I have been accused of deviating too far afield from Austen’s romantic sensibilities and bringing to light some uncomfortable realities for women she would never have considered proper topics. I disagree. To me, Jane Austen’s most enduring legacy is not romantic novels of little substance but brilliantly complex characters populating witty sensible social commentary highlighting women’s dependence on marriage to secure social standing and economic security.
A life altering event inextricably links a fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam Darcy while simultaneously creating an almost insurmountable divide. This Pride and Prejudice deviation takes the reader on a journey through a labyrinth filled with misunderstandings, bias, guilt and fear--not to mention, laughter, animal magnetism and waltzing. As Elizabeth says, 'she shed enough tears to float one of Lord Nelson's frigates' but as she also observes 'unhappiness does, indeed, have comic aspects one should never underestimate.' Though the path for our protagonists is much more ardurous than canon the benefit remains the same, a very happy Janeite ending for these two soul-mates. Along the way there is retribution, redemption and reward for other characters--including a few that recall players in Ms Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility.' While reading her first published novel, I came across grievances so unjust that they called out to this long-time struggler for women's rights. With this novel, I became determined to give them some vindication. A sampling of comments left for this story at an online Jane Austen fan fiction site: Thank you for bringing this amazing, complex, heart-wrenching, story to a beautiful conclusion.
Great chances to win Beth Massey's Goodly Creatures, a Pride and Prejudice Deviation. There are two eBooks and two paperbacks for winners anywhere in the world. Leave your comment + e-mail address and choose whether you want to be entered for an e-book or a paperback. Deadline November 5.