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Friday, May 21, 2010

Austen and Allegory

Pathetic sobs echoed through the Chamber of the Falls, loud enough to be heard clearly even over the great drone of the cascading waters. Their afternoon of poetry reading abandoned, Vincent and Catherine looked up to see Samantha coming toward them down the passageway, a book cradled in her arms and a teary pout on her face.

“Samantha, what has happened? What makes you cry?” Vincent asked sitting up and leaning toward her, caring and concern emanating from his every pore. Catherine opened her arms wide as the young girl approached, and Samantha lurched into her embrace.

After a moment, Samantha sat back up, endearingly wiped off some tears with the back of her hand, and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, Vincent, Catherine. I didn’t know anyone would be here.”

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Catherine asked as Vincent handed her a handkerchief.

Samantha blew her nose and raised her chin with a defiant sniff. “Brooke says I’m too much of a baby to understand Jane Austen!”

Catherine quickly planted a reassuring kiss on the top of her head, a gesture which also allowed her to mask a small smile. It wasn’t that she was laughing at the girl’s distress; she simply couldn’t help but reflect on how wonderful it must be to grow up in a world where the bone of contention was Jane Austen, rather than the brand of someone’s blue jeans.

“What did Brooke say to you, Samantha?” Vincent asked somberly.

“She was mooning over Stephen, telling him how dreamy he is, and how much he reminds her of Mr. Darcy. I told her that was a terrible thing to say to Stephen, because Stephen is really nice, and Mr. Darcy is rude and arrogant and I don’t like him. He’s not nearly so nice a character as Colonel Brandon.” She showed Catherine a dilapidated reddish book with Sense and Sensibility emblazoned in worn gold leaf on its spine.

“Brooke said that if I like Colonel Brandon better than Mr. Darcy, it just proves I’m too young to understand Jane Austen. But I’m not, Vincent; am I?” Her eyes begged him to tell her that Brooke was wrong.

“No, I don’t think that at all, Samantha. You are a most astute reader for your age. Although I do believe that the critics have generally acknowledged Mr. Darcy to be an archetypal romantic hero figure, the epitome of masculine desirability…”

Samantha’s forehead creased and she began to pout again, seeing where Vincent was heading.

Catherine interceded.

“Samantha, take it from me: it is not ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that every woman who reads Jane Austen falls madly in love with Mr. Darcy,” Catherine informed with great conviction.

“It’s not?” Vincent and Samantha asked simultaneously.

“No, it is not. I, for one, and my friend, Jenny, for another, both happen to agree with you, Samantha. In fact, it was a conversation very much like this one that made Jenny and me friends.”

They both encouraged her to tell them more; Vincent, because he always wanted to know everything there was to know about his Catherine, and Samantha, because she thought Catherine was the smartest, neatest and most beautiful lady she’d ever met. So, basically, for the same reason.

“It was our first day of literature class, freshman year, when I first met Jenny. The professor asked the class, and I think she meant it to be rhetorical, if Mr. Darcy wasn’t the sexiest male character in all of British literature. Jenny and I we were the only two in the room who didn’t fall all over ourselves trying to agree with her. She looked at us like we each had grown two heads when we started arguing with her.

“Jenny piped right up and launched into a vehement dissertation on how much more attractive Colonel Brandon was, and I backed her up. We pointed out that Brandon was in love with Marianne from the moment he saw her, treated her wonderfully, and was willing to move heaven and earth for her. And if that didn’t make a man sexy, we didn’t know what did. Whereas Darcy spent most of the Pride and Prejudice with his nose in the air, insulting the woman he supposedly loved, sabotaging her sister, mocking her family, and generally being a major jerk.”

“Yes! Exactly!” squealed Samantha, much encouraged (and not a little self-righteous) knowing that Catherine was on her side. “I know that Mr. Darcy got better by the end, and that’s what’s important, but Colonel Brandon was good right from the start!”

“Precisely my thoughts, Samantha,” agreed Catherine. “Brandon was everything good, loving, steadfast, and selfless.” She looked lovingly at Vincent, thinking how well those adjectives described her own archetypal male hero.

She looked back at the glowing girl beside her. “I just wish that Marianne had started out a little smarter; if only she could have seen beyond Brandon’s flannel waistcoat when they first met, it would have saved everyone a lot of time and grief. But unfortunately, she was foolish and superficial then, and it took her a while to figure out just how wonderful he truly was.”

Catherine glanced back up at Vincent, thinking that the same could thing be said of herself when she first met Vincent.

Vincent, sensing the thread of her thought, replied, “We cannot blame Marianne; Willoughby was dashing and handsome. All she’d ever dreamt of.” He looked down and began idly playing with the dirt. “Brandon was so unattractive, ‘silent and grave.’ It was only natural that she would long for Willoughby, someone as beautiful and as vibrant as she was.” His eyes darted up to Catherine’s face.

Catherine looked at him meaningfully for a long moment before retorting, “First of all, Brandon was not unattractive! Far from it! If I recall correctly, ‘his appearance was not unpleasing… his countenance was sensible and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.’ I think he was far more handsome than he ever realized.” She fixed him with her gaze until he looked away in acquiescence.

“And secondly, Willoughby was nowhere near beautiful, not in any true way, not in any way that counted. He was shallow and selfish. He had no honor, no morals.”

“But, he did love Marianne - as much as a man like that can love?” The shadow of her own words came back echoed from his lips.

Catherine shook her head. “Which everyone has seen, was not very much, and not true at all. Willoughby cared far more about money than love, more about power than people. Why couldn’t Marianne have seen that right away, instead of hurting dear, sweet, beloved Brandon all that time? Brandon deserved so much better than that from her.”

“Perhaps,” Vincent whispered, “knowing that the woman he loved had a chance at happiness was more than enough, for Brandon?”

“Exactly why Brandon was called ‘the best of men.’ And all the more reason that I wish Marianne had come to her senses sooner and realized that her only chance at happiness was with Brandon. But, at least she did finally appreciate and fall in love with him. And luckily for her, he had enough goodness in him to forgive her.” Now it was her turn to look away, adding softly, “He always did deserve far better than her.”

“No,” Vincent countered vehemently, his eyes boring straight through Catherine’s soul. “There is no one better than her. No one could ever be worthy of her.”

“She’s not some kind of goddess, Vincent!” Catherine’s voice rose, her eyes locked onto his. “She doesn’t want to be up on any kind of pedestal. She’s a flesh and blood woman, not an abstract ideal!”

There was a pause.

“Are we still talking about Sense and Sensibility?” Samantha quizzically inquired.

Catherine and Vincent both jumped a bit, startled Samantha’s continued presence.

“Well, sure we are,” Catherine said with as much conviction as she could manage.

“Why don’t you read us some of your favorite passages, Samantha?” Vincent suggested. “You read so beautifully.”

Beaming under Vincent’s praise, Samantha began leafing through her book.

Vincent, nearly ‘as happy as all those who best loved him believed he deserved to be,’ extended his strong arm in invitation to Catherine. Catherine, ‘who found her own happiness in forming his,’ snuggled contentedly into his embrace.

“‘The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex…’”

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