Sex in Wessex… Rediscovering the 19th Century

Jane Austen quote

Lately, for some inexplicable reason, I’ve been drawn to the sick and wicked of the 19th Century, and while summer is traditionally the time to grab a potboiler and head for the beach I’ve found myself watching multiple film versions of several enduring 19th Century novels, reading online bios and book reviews.

It started innocently enough last month when the thermometer busted 90F for the third straight day and we decided to take in an air-conditioned late afternoon movie to beat the heat. That movie, Gemma Bovery, took us back to Flaubert’s novel and triggered a surprising amount of curiosity leading to an avalanche of late night videos, online searches, and bookstore visits. One thing led to another, one novel to another, and almost immediately a renewed appreciation for Victorian-era naturalist writers and their modern film translators

“Renewed” isn’t the right word to describe my appreciation for the era’s writers because I didn’t sincerely appreciate Flaubert, Hardy, the Bronte’s and Jane Austen in the old days. I endured a college class or two that included the major figures, but I saw them as historical points of reference in the continuum of the novel. My interest ran more to Camus and Sartre than tweedy Englishmen (and women) writing about the sick and wicked of the 19th Century. I missed a lot of good storytelling by skating over the genre.

Hardy novel

Gemma Bovery and the release of a new Far From The Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan as Ms. Everdene are the one-two punch that took me back to the future. Flaubert and Hardy, like Shakespeare before them, dig deep into the psyches of their flawed but very human characters. Granted, Gemma Arterton and Carey Mulligan held my attention in a way that small print in the Modern Library editions of Madame Bovary and Far From the Madding Crowd could not, but the story lines of these novels are every bit as compelling, sexy, smarmy, and contemporary as anything Jonathan Franzen or John Updike ever dreamed up. Hardy and Flaubert, the Brontes and George Eliot, give us good stories and enough detail to hang our imagination on. We don’t need a clinical description or details of pulsing throbbing body parts to know what went on when Emma visited Dupuis in the hotel in Rouen. Our imaginations can fill in the detail.

As a writer it is Hardy’s creation of Wessex, the fictional region of southwest England where all of his novels take place, that takes us out of ourselves. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapawtapha County, Wessex lets the geography of the mind take over and free us from reality. Whether it’s Bathsheba Everdene resisting her attraction to the Mr. Oak (above) and then falling in bed with creepy Sergeant Francis Troy or Michael Henchard, the main character in The Mayor of Casterbridge, selling his wife and child to a sailor, Hardy’s readers are on a voyage through the choppy, unhappy waters of human behavior.

Even though Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy both deal with limited opportunity and the oppressive treatment of women they also share an affection for the strong willed kind. Austen’s leading ladies most often find their way to a happy ending; Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park all end with a triumph over adversity and the realization of found love. Hardy, on the other hand, puts his women through humiliating ordeals and twists of fate that often end in disgrace, poverty or death. The headstrong independent Bathsheba Everdene is an exception, but she has to overcome her own stubborn determination to be independent in order to realize that Mr. Oak is more to her than just a loyal farm manager. It’s only when he’s about to cut and run to California that she has her come-to-Jesus moment.

Fowles cover

I’m know I’m late to the party, the 19th Century one, but in rethinking these stories I realized that John Fowles’ faux-Victorian novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of my favorites, has the same elements as most of the Hardy novels even though it was written in 1969. There is a mysterious French sailor, a strong willed, independent but compromised heroine, a moralistic little town, a curious town visitor who betrays his fiancé and falls in love with the heroine. There is unrequited love, suspense, disappointment and betrayal. The magic of this 20th Century variation comes about through the intrusion of a narrator who concludes the narrative by offering three possible endings for the story. It’s a work of genius as is the film version written by Harold Pinter and starring Meryl Streep with Jeremy Irons.

This has been a summer of surprises – 90 degree temperatures in Seattle and a fascination with Victorian novels. I love hot weather but didn’t expect it here, and though I was a lit major I never could have predicted a serious interest in 19th Century fiction. Here’s to Jane Austen’s sick and wicked and the absence of perfection – to Madame Bovary, Bathsheba Everdene, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennett, and Sarah Woodruff (the French Lieutenant’s Woman) – imperfect women but heroines all.

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