Jane Austen’s books are often classified as “romantic comedies,” especially when made into movies, but they are often at their best not at looking at men and women’s courtship and love but at misunderstandings and minor misdeeds women have with one another, out of competition and sometimes out of spite. Take the famous picnic scene in Emma, where (beautiful, young, rich, unmarried) Emma Woodhouse, piqued by (married) Mrs. Elton’s dismissive comment about a conversation game Emma suggested playing, decides to insult her (older, poorer, unmarried) friend Miss Bates:
Some laughed, and answered good-humouredly. Miss Bates said a great deal; Mrs. Elton swelled at the idea of Miss Woodhouse’s presiding; Mr. Knightley’s answer was the most distinct.
“Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?”
“Oh! no, no”—cried Emma, laughing as carelessly as she could—“Upon no account in the world. It is the very last thing I would stand the brunt of just now. Let me hear any thing rather than what you are all thinking of. I will not say quite all. There are one or two, perhaps, (glancing at Mr. Weston and Harriet,) whose thoughts I might not be afraid of knowing.”
“It is a sort of thing,” cried Mrs. Elton emphatically, “which I should not have thought myself privileged to inquire into. Though, perhaps, as the Chaperon of the party—I never was in any circle—exploring parties—young ladies—married women—”
Her mutterings were chiefly to her husband; and he murmured, in reply,
“Very true, my love, very true. Exactly so, indeed—quite unheard of—but some ladies say any thing. Better pass it off as a joke. Every body knows what is due to you.”
“It will not do,” whispered Frank to Emma; “they are most of them affronted. I will attack them with more address. Ladies and gentlemen—I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that she waives her right of knowing exactly what you may all be thinking of, and only requires something very entertaining from each of you, in a general way. Here are seven of you, besides myself, (who, she is pleased to say, am very entertaining already,) and she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all.”
“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
Emma’s (soon-to-be) love Mr. Knightley finds her after the picnic and tells her off for insulting Miss Bates:
“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.”
Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”
“I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.”
“Oh!” cried Emma, “I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.”
“They are blended,” said he, “I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.”
One of the points of Emma is that, at least in Austen’s eyes, a young, beautiful, rich, unmarried girl like Emma Woodhouse can cause a lot of trouble in a small community, even with the best of intentions, and cause trouble especially for other women. And this is in spite of Austen’s society being, by our standards, incredibly repressive of the sexuality of young women.
Last week was the beginning of the defamation trial by Nicole Eramo, a dean at the University of Virginia, against Sabrina Erdely, the Rolling Stone journalist who wrote “A Rape on Campus” based on the false and somewhat psychedelic accusations of Jackie Coakley against an imaginary frat boy and his real-life frat, as well as against Eramo and the University administration she was a part of, and this trial seems like a good example of how changes in sexual mores have made, feminism notwithstanding, these kinds of conflicts between older and younger women more inevitable and rougher edged rather than less.
Many journalists have described the “college rape crisis” as a kind of Neo-Victorianism, that allows the paternalistic hand of the state to swoop in to govern feminine sexuality once again. In another way, though, the “college rape crisis” story assuages the psychological needs of both the young female students and the older administrators, journalists, and professors who get involved. For the young coeds, it helps them resolve both their unhappiness with current sexual culture and their anger with the young men who, an earlier era would say, had treated them dishonorably. For the administrators, it is a way of recapturing authority and importance in a culture that worships young feminine sexuality but now, with older women’s authority from marriage and motherhood increasingly marginalized, has little use for anyone older. (One of the problems with “Girl power” is the girl part.) The rape crisis narrative addresses both of these sets of needs, giving the young women a story that acknowledged their unhappiness while still holding out the promise of free self-actualized sexuality, and allowing the older women to be needed as supporters, mentors, and advocates for the young.
As Jane Austen well knew, and Jackie has proved to both Sabrina Erdely and Nicole Eramo, a young woman who is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, who seems to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,” can cause a whole lot of trouble, especially for other women.