Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen and Vogue

SR with his beauteous wife, Padma Lakshmi. Picture from
About a year ago, addressing a gathering in Kolkata, Salman Rushdie said:
"Jane Austen’s career... is more or less exactly contemporary with the Napoleonic wars. And yet, there’s essentially no mention of the Napoleonic wars in the novels of Jane Austen, except that soldiers show up at balls and look cute. The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties, and defeating Napoleon was a side-issue. The reason that she can do this - I’m not criticizing her - is that she can fully explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere. The public sphere was remote from private life in that time.

What’s happened, I think, as time has gone on is that space - the space between the public and the private — has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. Now the public and the private smash up against each other every single day...."

Not quite!

Anyone who ever gave Jane Austen a good read knows that she would of course turn her back on the Napoleonic Wars - how, after all, to find anyone solidly marriageable inside or even near that whole fracas?
Jane Austen's picture is from

As to soldiers, in terms of J.A.'s world view, she does gives them their due. What's not to like, decor- atively
about a
flock of
men in white
and short
jackets/tailcoats with plenty of sashes and epaulets and as much passementerie as any curtains by Mésangère? They're good for ballrooms just like they're still good for Quality Street toffee tins.

Quality Street toffee tins to be seen at

Otherwise, J.A. dishes them the almost-silent treatment, and rightly so. After all, the odd officer may have been a pretty fellow, but his slender means had obviously been swallowed up by his commission, bad enough on its face. Then, if you cared to look a little closer once in a while, as J.A. made it very clear she did, soldiers are dangerous rakes - smart in their white britches and all, but rapscallions on the run nevertheless, always taking advantage of hapless young women wherever they happen to be passing through, and then leaving for Lord Knows Where, and possibly To Whom, likely never to return. According to J.A.'s canon - or, rather, as per certain of her
'The Elopement'
from characters' failure to abide by that canon - only the very silliest girls, destined to come to a sorry end in some godforsaken hole-in-the-wall, ever ran off with soldiers (Pride and Prejudice). And, it can't be said too often, whom to marry - and conversely, whom not to marry - is entirely J.A.'s area of concentration and expertise.

This is not to say that J.A. failed to integrate the major goings-on of the day out in the larger world, what with all the new-fangled princes in her modern fairy tales. For her purposes, it was far preferable to look in the opposite direction from the shores of Napoleonic France in those naughty times, and to focus on those hardy English-born fellows who had made their fortunes in the Triangular Trade. Leaving aside whatever else they might have done that must be shuddered at and set aside (most famously, in Mansfield Park per Edward Said), at least they were coming home with impressive quantities of cash and well developed immune systems - which their wives might develop too, if they were sporting and went to sea along with their husbands (Persuasion).
click here to see enlargement of map from national

This meant that
a) these guys wouldn't be carried off by one good sneeze, the way lesser men and landlubbers might, and
b) they could easily keep a girl in muslins and phaetons for the long haul...............................
If they were good men - in terms of women, that is (also Persuasion ) - they could be relied on to police their brethren in life on the high seas and tropical isles, including the baddies who abandoned their hapless wives in Bath, the better to romance their Carib mistresses. Sometimes the best of these better men could even correct those Stoneleigh Abbey montage (above)
weaker men's failures posthumously. It could be said that a lot of J.A.'s social and political awareness is concentrated on either making these fast-rising, sometimes Admiralty-bound types completely respectable through marriage into the upper gentry or lower nobility, or on showing that these men could easily buy out the wastrels among the landed classes - in a heartbeat and with apparent grace as well, if the opportunity arose --no problem. J.A. had close access to both kinds of people among her array of relatives, knew the score, had her loyalties, and could spin a really good yarn to prove her point.

Not sure about any of those screenplays...
Jane Austen's house (left)

And yet......
in detecting the existence of a gap, or the absence of a point of contact or connectivity, S.R. is definitely onto something. I'm guessing that while the breach - or is it a chasm? - does exist, it is neither temporally nor spatially distant, but rather, it is ongoing and conceptual and upon us even now - viz., while the current private-public-smash-up scenario S.R. suggests is in fact playing out on all the screens in our homes and offices and iPods in these times of war, winter, and consequent exhaustion, here's Vogue's advice for February:

"One of fashion's strongest currents this spring is a folkloric, homespun individualism that operates as a kind of antidote to the larger, grimmer trends in world affairs. You'll get the picture in Steven Meisel's "Coat Check," which showcases the statement coats of the season -- and these statements are all about quirkiness, intriguing details, and articulating private narratives of femininity. Likewise, Tim Walker's breathtaking portfolio of gloriously full-bodied, domestically-inspired lace dresses argues for a humbler and more charming approach to cocktail dressing. Even rock'n'roll about incorporating whimsical, almost baroque touches into the classic skinny, boyish silhouette. There's a lot of attitude, but no aggression."

Great photos, anyhow...

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