May the Fourth Be with Me

A blog post by Rita J. Dashwood

Last night, I decided that the time had come. I had waited long enough. As soon as the house was quiet and I could be certain that everyone was asleep, I put on my brand new maroon coat — I decided that maroon was going to be my colour — my black gloves and — the most important item of all — my mask. I opened my bedroom window and stepped out into the balcony. It was odd to see that once busy street so quiet and sombre. I had assumed that the gloom would be intimidating, but I actually felt it spurring me on. With a jump, I clung on to the protruding windowsill and pulled myself up onto the roof. As I stood at the very top, I couldn’t help but smile. I had assumed my arms were probably not strong enough for me to pull myself up, but I was so happy to be proven wrong. I jumped from one roof to another, ecstatic again at finding out that my agility and strength had exceeded my expectations. It felt so nice to be out, finally out of the house! No rules, no limitations, just myself and my shadow. I hadn’t picked a destination, but I recognised it when I saw it: the church bell tower stood high above all of the other buildings, and I knew that that’s where I would leave it. Once I had climbed to the top, I pulled out my dagger and I carved the letter “M” on the stone. I looked down at the enormous distance between myself and the floor. No one would be able to see it from all the way down there. But I would know.

To paraphrase Mr. Bennet in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I think I can safely boast that here sits one of the silliest girls in the country. Sadly, it wasn’t me who went all Assassin’s Creed on the rooftops of London, but my character Emilia Woodhouse — guess which character that is a reference to! I play Emilia as part of Good Society, a role-playing game that, as the creators themselves say, “seeks to capture the heart of Jane Austen’s work.” So, every Monday evening I get together with people that I either haven’t seen in real life for years or not at all, and I impose on them my fantasies of being a very wealthy genteel lady in Regency England. Emilia is the recently orphaned overprotected daughter of a landed gentleman who sadly but usefully died, leaving her all his fortune. Having received the unwanted attentions of Peregrine Percy — Pip to his sycophantic friends — Emilia finally discovers the secret that will expose him for the lowlife that he is: Pip has an illegitimate child. That is, until she is forced to give up on the idea, since the ruin of Pip’s reputation — and consequently his chances of marrying well — would mean the ruin of the poor mother of his child. As we started the new expansion of Good Society — think villains, swords and secret identities — Emilia, after a drunken night in which she destroys half the contents of her drawing room by what could generously be called sword-fighting, decides to properly learn this skill and take up the mask of Mistress M. With this persona, she will be able to do all of the things she wishes she could in the clear light of day, including putting men like Pip in their place.

I have been obsessed with Austen since the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came out. I remember watching the trailer and feeling thoroughly unimpressed: two women, lying in bed, one of them whispering the name “Mr. Darcy” as if it were one big secret. I can see where this is going, I thought. This rich Mr. Darcy will take advantage of the poor brunette girl, who will be impregnated, thrown out of the house by her family and eventually die on the street. That is, until my aunt — a languages and literature teacher — explained to me that I couldn’t be farther from the truth. And the rest is history. I hadn’t even started my BA and I was already saying that one day I was going to do a PhD on Austen. Years later, “my darling child,” Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen, has been mercilessly sent out into the world, hoping to one day be on the bookshelves of the shop at Austen’s own house in Chawton. This is the first book to investigate the centrality of non-portable property — the house and the estate — in Austen’s novels, as well as the first to explore the portrayal of women’s affective relationships to property in the eighteenth-century novel. In particular, it considers how Austen’s female characters establish feelings of ownership towards houses they are not legally entitled to own. Austen shows these women actively circumventing the limitations imposed on them by the patriarchal society in which they live, with her novels offering ways of thinking about property that would not be legitimised by the law until several decades after her death. Such a representation of women’s relationships to property is distinctly empowering, showing women challenging the constraints with which the law threatens to oppress them.

One of my favourite things about working on Austen is that while I take her very seriously I also very seriously don’t. The fact that I think she is the most amazing author that has ever lived doesn’t stop me from having fun with her. This is why when I found out that Andrew McInnes was working on a project that intended to shift the focus in Romantic studies from the sublime to the ridiculous and from solemnity to humour, I knew I had to be part of it. On the auspicious day of May the Fourth — may Carrie Fisher be with me — I’m becoming a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Romantic Ridiculous, and having the world “ridiculous” in my title is only one of my favourite things about this position. I love that with Austen nothing is sacred. The North American Friends of Chawton House recently fundraised by creating an Austen bobblehead that depicts her as a baddass rock star. Devoney Looser, the biggest Austen expert in the world and consequently my idol, does roller-derby under the nickname “Stone Cold Jane Austen.” There are adaptations of Austen’s novels located in Amritsar, a Beverly Hills high school and even the bedroom of a millennial North-American vlogger. While so many other Romantic-period authors remain these figures that we continue to approach with such solemnity and in isolation, Austen studies encourage a very different approach that should absolutely be extended.

And as I was recently reading two adaptations of Pride and Prejudice situated in a modern American high school, I started thinking: what is it about Austen and her works that makes her so popular to this day? While working with Andy, I will be taking the first steps in developing a new research project, Jane Austen in Popular Culture, which will consider recent reimaginings of Austen’s novels in order to explore how her works, which are so deeply rooted in a particular social and political context, can be made to be of relevance to the lives of people today. I will be introducing this project with an article, “Jane Austen Goes to High School: Claire Lazebnik’s Epic Fail and Elizabeth Eulberg’s Prom & Prejudice as reimaginings of Pride and Prejudice,” which considers how these modern works of young adult literature take inspiration from Austen’s engagement with questions about gender and class, and continue these conversations by transferring them into a present-day American high school.

In the meantime, I have developed a different project that I hope to find funding for soon, which I have entitled The Heiress: Women, Property and Economics, 1780-1880. This project originates from my stubborn refusal to decidedly pick between literature and history. By engaging with the two, as well as history of economics — a sign that I clearly didn’t rebel hard enough against my parents, as they are both economists — I will be focusing on the heiress, which is such a recurring and compelling figure in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel despite the fact that a great proportion of women were denied any ownership of property in this period, and certainly until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. By taking an interdisciplinary approach, this project will uncover the documented experiences of British female property and business owners in this period and consider them alongside fictionalisations of such experiences in the realist novel. And the fact that it should really help with my roleplaying of Emilia is just a bonus…

Aside from fangirling over Austen, I can be found listening to BTS — did I mention that’s going to be book project number 4? — weightlifting, dancing like no one’s watching (sorry neighbours!) and writing Ëvyl, my young adult novel which tells the story of a family of queer women who deal with love, loss and witchcraft. Do say hi on Twitter, Instagram or on my YouTube channel, where I share my love of books in the hopes of encouraging people to read and, hopefully, introducing them to their new favourites!

Credit: Kelly Light, Instagram account @KElight. Reproduced with permission

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