I'm a good chunk of the way through Anna Karenina. On the one hand, I'm finding it delightful, like getting back to my grad school self. On the other hand, 19th century fiction is frustrating to me these days. I now know more than I ever really wanted to know about nineteenth century wedding customs, and illnesses, and high society, and farming (and the list could go on and on). Of course, I tend to skim through those passages--one of the benefits of not being in grad school!
I used to have more patience with these loose, baggy monsters (as Henry James called 19th century novels). The melodrama was not such a turn off. Now I read about Anna K/ and her complete inability to control her emotions and her sex life, and I feel the utter frustration and annoyance that I feel with modern middle class girls who don't want to get birth control because then they'd have to admit they're sexually active. Give me a break!
I find myself wishing that Anna would just throw herself under that train already.
I yearn for the sturdy pluck of a 19th century heroine like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She wouldn't have sacrificed everything for a man. In fact, when she had that chance, she walked away, into a life of utter poverty. There's a heroine who is secure in her selfhood.
Maybe we should adopt this motto: what would Jane Eyre do?
In my between reading times yesterday, I found myself running through 19th century heroines in my head, trying to figure out any admirable ones. Could it only be Jane Eyre that I like?
O.K., I'll give grudging admiration to Jane Austen's characters. At least when the ones who lack sense are hurtling through their plotlines, there's a lesson for us all. I like them, I root for them. Why can't I do the same for Anna?
Of course, I like Kitty and Levin. Those two characters are the only ones who redeem this epic novel. Even when Kitty is having her 200 page nervous breakdown across Europe, I like her. She's not quite as self-reliant as Jane Eyre, but she'll do.
I realize that many of these 19th century novels were trying to show how constrained the lives of 19th century women were. If I paint them in the best light, these novels argue that women have the need for meaningful work, just as men do.
I no longer believe as fervently that all the 19th century male writers really had that agenda. I suspect that some of them just didn't care for women, and that's why their female characters are as unlikable as they are.
Last night I announced, "This will be the last 19th century novel I ever read." Well, now I've dared the gods, haven't I? At least I will now no longer have to feel embarrassed at not having read any of the great Russian authors. But I'm not about to slog through War and Peace, either.
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