The mother and I were talking about “the female state” after watching Sense & Sensibility for the bamillionth time over the weekend. (It’s one of my favorites and I’m happy to report, now among the mother’s, too.)
Early on in the movie, Edward (Hugh Grant) is bemoaning how he can’t agree on a profession with his mother. Eleanor (Emma Thompson), whose father has just died and – along with her mother and two younger sisters – is being turned out of her sizable home, which has been inherited by her half-brother and his wife, Edward’s sister. Property passes from father to son, not father to daughter, Eleanor tells us. The family of women is reduced to a paltry annual sum on which to live collectively.
“At least you will inherit your fortune,” Eleanor tells Edward. “We can’t even earn ours.”
I thought about this as Mrs. B bid me farewell yesterday within minutes of having greeted me. Turns out she’s been fired from her part-time job; Friday is her last day. “I guess I’m just too old,” she said, a look of defeat covering her face. I asked if she could retire, referring more to her finances than her age. “I could,” she said. “I just don’t want to.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s completely true.
She has a son but I don’t get the feeling that he is either willing or able to help her out. I do get the feeling that she may be looking at some tight times ahead. I can’t imagine having to start over at my age (something that frankly, scares the holy hell out of me) much less at hers. The widow lady trying to make her way in the world for whatever time she has left.
So much has changed since the time of Jane Austen’s forward-thinking female characters. (I have to think Jane Austen would be simultaneously pleased and appalled by some of the changes, depending on what part of the world you're in. That was the heart of the discussion the mother and I were having.) Yet for all their forward-thinking, there was just one out for Austen's female characters: to invariably solidify their fates through fortuitous marriages – with vulgarly rich men they just also happened to be in love with. Something Jane herself even managed to avoid.
Yes, so much has changed since then … and yet, so little.