City mouse, country mouse

C

Years ago, the New York Times Sunday Book Review section ran an occasional feature for which they got writers and other public figures to confess the titles of literary classics they had never read. Absolutely everyone has egg on their face when they’re made to out themselves this way. My own list would fill a sizeable notebook. One of my pandemic resolutions that fared better than some household projects I aspired to complete was tackling some of those unread classics during the months of quarantine. I’ve mentioned some of the titles I’ve tackled in earlier postings – Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Proust – and the latest is Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s early 19th century gem.

I’ve been reflecting on why an avid reader like me passed over books like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. I would add George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which I also took on for the first time a few years ago. I’m not proud to admit it, but somehow I always classified these books as “women’s (girls’) books, works that might be thought of as books of manners devoid of the kind of drama and action that would hold my attention. The strange thing is that I’ve always prided myself on my high scores on the femininity scale of personality tests that measure such things. In reading the stories my students have written over the years, it was the boys’ stories, bursting with action – fights, crashes, general mayhem – that failed to hold my attention. Girls’ stories were more often about relationships, often petty and mean-spirited, but still closer to where I lived than crash landings in distant galaxies.

So, it should hardly be a surprise that when I finally got down to these “women’s books” that I was enthralled. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch from a small leather-bound book so close to extinction that its pages were reluctantly united by rubber bands. But that hardly detracted from its insights into the intricacies of gender and social class so dense and rich that I finally had to suspend my underlining and notating every line and every page.

I am feeling the same way about Pride and Prejudice, even though nothing is farther from my concerns than the burning issue at the heart of the book – marriageable young women’s relentless quest for husbands with sufficient guaranteed income to protect them from sinking into poverty. The quest for proper marriages is, as they say in the Supreme Court, settled law in my family, so what is there in this 210-year-old novel rooted in a disappeared world that continues to engage me? Thousands of scholarly dissertations and professional articles have been devoted to aspects of this question. That’s not the route I want to follow. I’d just like to pluck one example from the book that spoke truth to me about my life in a way that got that underlining pen going.

(Process Interjection: I’ve been stuck at this point in the writing for a bit – napping, reading, thinking about a cup of tea, but not moving to satisfy that desire. I think it’s because I’m about to make a leap that I’m not sure is structurally defensible, but then I’m encouraged by the realization that this is my blog. Nobody is going to subtract points from my Blue Book essay, so with my apologies, here I go.)

Mrs. Bennet is the mother of a slew of marriageable daughters. She will not rest until they are all well-married. She is visiting a new neighbor, Mr. Bingley, who recently moved to a grand estate in the country town where the Bennets reside. Mrs. B has fixed on him as a prime catch for one of her girls. On a visit to the estate, they engage in the following exchange:

Mrs. Bennet: I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?

Mr. Bingley: When I am in the country, I never wish to leave it, and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.

Now I’m guessing that most readers would pass over these lines as an amusing diversion from the marriage game at the heart of the book, but for me Jane Austen has just expressed concisely a central theme of my life. In our almost 58 years of marriage we have lived in five great American cities – San Francisco, Boston, New York, Houston and Chicago, punctuated by transformative interludes in two very different “country” settings – Mississippi and New Hampshire. For the purposes of this piece, let me focus on our eleven years in New Hampshire because it shares an uncanny resemblance to the setting of Pride and Prejudice. People know a lot more about each other’s lineage than they would know of their city neighbors despite their greater physical distance from each other, and social hierarchies are pretty clearly recognized. Although there is a lot of drama roiling under the surface, life appears calmer and more pleasantly paced.

It’s been almost 40 years since we left our 18th century farmhouse in New Hampshire, but we have returned for some portion of every summer, with the exception of this one pandemic year. There is always a point in the spring of our Houston or Chicago lives when we begin to see flashes of the wood trails we will soon be walking and turn to thoughts of how the lives of our NH friends are unfolding. We have, in effect, lived a double life, like the legendary sailors and traveling salesmen with wives and families in different locales, each unaware of the other.

Like Mr. Bingley, wherever we are, we never wish to leave.  We are keenly aware of the virtues and deficiencies of each our worlds, but like everything else in life, there are compensating tradeoffs: for the country, the star-filled nighttime skies vs. the more limited cultural and culinary options; for the city, the greater diversity of population, including our vibrant Jewish community vs. the far less edgy homogeneity of our small town’s population. These are just samples of what deserves to be a much lengthier list. I should add here that we do not approach our country lives with the naivete of most summer people. We have actually lived the year-round life there and aren’t easily drawn into romantic visions of that life, but still it fills many gaps in our city existence.

Like Mr. Bingley, we can be city mice or country mice, and like him that choice is ours because of privilege. Most of the world is mired by their economic conditions in the only world they’ll ever know. Jane Austen is keenly aware of the way in which the lives of her characters are determined by money and property. Race was not a factor in her time and place, but wouldn’t you like to see a Bridgerton take on that world? That would definitely add some edge to that world of balls and carriages and servants.

In any case, my immersion in Pride and Prejudice continues with great pleasure, and I can just see my score on that femininity scale growing by the page.

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Marv Hoffman

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