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Keeping Austen Weird

By the end of the prologue to Jane Smiley’s Private Life, a novel set in San Francisco during World War II, we already know that Andrew Early is somehow re­sponsible for the creation of the Japanese internment camps. This is not a subtle book. Early is a man of science, and his inevitable transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is telegraphed from the novel’s first pages. And yet we are deceived and defeated by Private Life’s ostensibly simple narrative arc. Andrew’s only crime is solipsism, which is an unfortunate characteristic of nearly all of the characters in Private Life, including the “heroine” Margaret Mayfield, who is really no heroine at all.

Margaret grows up in a small town on the Missouri River, encumbered by tragedy from a young age. One brother dies after accidentally setting off a blasting cap, another succumbs to measles, and her father, the town doctor, shoots himself with a rifle—all this misfortune within a single year. Margaret, the oldest of the remaining three girls, finds herself near spinsterhood and resigned to a life of charitable works with her mother. But much to her (and the whole town’s) surprise, after a brief and confusing courtship she marries Early, an astronomer of ambiguous academic importance, and immediately they set their course for the Bay Area. From there, the story explores their life on a naval base, Andrew’s relentless obsession with astronomy and time, and the impact of their childlessness.

“In those days all stories ended with the wedding”: the epigraph to Smiley’s novel evokes the novels of that other famous Jane. Smiley has created an unconventional heroine in Margaret Mayfield, and her story is an attempt to refute the Austenian notion that a woman of insight, intellect, and courage will meet and marry her match. But haven’t we heard this story before? In the two centuries since Austen wrote, scores of novels have been written to refute that very idea.  George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman respect literary marital conventions while turning them on their heads. Coming from a woman brazen enough to retell the story of King Lear (and to pull it off, no less), we expect somewhat more insight into the family structure.

Despite its typical resting place among the last pages of her novels, marriage looms large throughout the entirety of Austen’s work. Marriage is the goal, the enemy, the captor, and the prize of her heroines. Smiley mistakenly assumes that she must diametrically oppose Austen if she is to provide a fresh perspective on “the marriage plot.” She creates a lackluster female protagonist—Elizabeth Bennett would want to strangle Margaret Mayfield—whose story begins with marriage, but metaphorically goes no further. Margaret’s young life is similar to an Austen heroine’s life in that both grow up in small towns and view the big city (in this case St. Louis) as a modern marvel. But beyond her roots, Margaret lacks the emotional intelligence and wryness of Eleanor Dashwood or the quiet pluck of Fanny Price. Characters dutifully declare that Margaret is highly literary, but unlike Marianne Dashwood (whose romantic—and Romantic—sensibilities boil over deliciously during readings of Shakespeare’s love sonnets) or Catherine Morland (whose fascination with Gothic novels encourages her imagination, and ours, to run wild), Mayfield is two-dimensional and quite frankly, a bore.

The preferred term for Margaret is bookish, and Smiley makes a big show of demonstrating Margaret’s wide-ranging literary appetite. But literary-minded characters are believable only when they integrate their reading into their lives with some subtlety and complexity. Margaret’s attention is directed towards a novel only long enough for her to give us its name and check it off her (and Smiley’s) reading list. Likewise, Smiley’s attitude towards literary reference is exactly that—referential. Her allusions do not permeate the text, they merely squat upon it, intent upon being seen. Ezra Pound, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Dickens are all tossed onto the page as proof of Margaret’s sensibilities.

At times these allusions are downright implausible. In the early days of their courtship, Andrew recommends Dracula to Margaret, telling her that “Mr. Bram a friend of my brother in England” and that the novel has “sensational effects.” Dracula does have sensational effects, and Margaret may have enjoyed them, but I am fairly certain that no respectable young man would recommend the sexually explicit Dracula to a woman he is courting. Most gallingly, in young adulthood Margaret implausibly reads Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to her two sisters and mother. (In 1899, the St. Louis Mirror said "One would fain beg the gods, in pure cowardice, for sleep unending rather than to know what an ugly, cruel, loathsome Monster Passion can be when, like a tiger, it slowly awakens. This is the kind of awakening that impresses the reader in Mrs. Chopin's heroine."). Here Smiley loudly foreshadows Margaret’s difficult and ultimately unfulfilling marriage—an unpleasant topic made downright laborious by Smiley’s flat narrative.

Unable to grapple with the hard reality of her life, Margaret eventually folds in upon herself and so too, alas, does the novel. True to the human spirit, it takes decades for Margaret to come to the conclusion that Andrew is not a misunderstood genius or a man shunned for his atypical principles: he is a fool and an egotist.  In that moment we can feel for Margaret—not because she has been duped, but because she allowed herself to settle for comfort, and in doing so, blinded herself to the truth. But whereas Austen’s novels achieve catharsis before their traditionally blissful endings, Smiley’s characters reach no such crescendo. Action does not follow epiphany.

Private Life does have moments of sweetness and understanding, usually when Margaret grapples with some aspect of the changing world. Before her engagement, her sister-in-law loans her a bicycle—something most of the residents of rural Missouri have never seen. Margaret learns to ride, first in circles on the hard dirt outside her home, only venturing beyond her driveway in a madcap moment. Rising early one morning, she sets off on the bike, and quickly finds herself more than two farms away from home. When inertia is no longer enough and she must dismount to push the bicycle up a hill, she realizes that “for the first time in her life” she is a “solitary traveler.” There is a glimpse of independence in this moment, but it is at the bottom of the last hill that Margaret meets Andrew Early for the first time, and sets in motion the events that will lead to her marriage. While walking with Andrew and considering the journey home, her mind is paralyzed by the three hills whose slopes so easily carried her to town. “If she were to turn around, they would present a barrier not unlike that of three walls rather than three dips, and then, of course, there would be the longer and less steep, but somehow even more disheartening climb up the hill to [the farm].” Upon consideration, Margaret walks the bicycle to a friend’s house and leaves it there. We never find out how she gets home, but personally I was not surprised that Margaret wasn’t up for the challenge.

Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.